Balami: Jet A1 Price, Aircraft Maintenance Are Airline Operators’ Critical Challenges

The recent issuance of an Aircraft Maintenance Organisation (AMO) certificate to 7Star Global Hangar Ltd, to operate an all-inclusive Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility has elicited joy amongst airline operators and the entire aviation stakeholders as that could stem over $1billion capital flight usually expended for aircraft maintenance repairs overseas. The Chief Executive Officer of 7-Star Global Hangar, Isaac Balami is an aircraft engineer and a consummate entrepreneur. In interview with WOLE SHADARE, he speaks on the overall benefits of MRO to the development of aviation in the country, general issues affecting the sector while proffering solutions to tackling the challenges. Excerpts


How does it feel to be granted an AMO certificate by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) after many years of hard work?

Thank you very much. 7StarGlobal is the First independent privately owned MRO in West and Central Africa. I say independent because it is a stand-alone and we were registered in 2012 and since then for about nine years, we have been back-to-back pursuing our license and variation with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority. We are happy today to announce that after over 15 months of the NCAA reviewing our variation and our operational specifications (OpsSpecs) and also expanding our capability list in Wheels and Brakes, NDT etc, we have finally finished our phase five which is the last stage in the certification process and we have been granted final approval. The huge capital in aircraft maintenance we often experience, amounting to over $1 billion that is annually spent in West Africa alone, is going to help to create jobs here in Nigeria. We are happy to say goodbye to four years of Inspection/Maintenance on Augusta 139 helicopters which most VIPs, even the presidency operates. Most oil and gas companies (Mobil, Shell, and Chevron) operate it. We also have EC 155 up to 6000 hours/12 years’ inspection. On the Learjet 45, about 9,600 hours’ inspection. On the small Cessna aircraft, we have about 100 hours/annual inspection. On the Bombardier DHC-8 100/200/300 (C Checks/8000FH), DHC-8 400 (C checks/8000FH), Challenger 601/604/605 (2400 hours inspections), Hawker Siddeley HS 125-850/900 (A-G Inspections), Bell 429 (5000 hours/5 years inspections), Embraer 135/145 (Up 5000hours/48months inspections), Embraer 600/650 (20000 hours/96 Months Inspections) and Boeing 737-300/400/500 (Up to 8A inspections), we have the highest inspection in most of the aircraft as stipulated in the manufacturer’s manual.

Isaac Balami

Airplanes in the country seem to retire faster than their counterparts in other climes. Can you shed light on the variation in longevity?

It is not true that airplanes’ lives tend to be longer outside Nigeria than within, and I will tell you why from my technical background in this aviation industry. My first job at the airport, 2006/2007 was at Aero Contractors Airline and the Canadian Helicopter Services that then owned 40 per cent of Aero Contractors. Aero today is over 60 years old. There was a time that the airline bought a brand-new airline and flew it in Nigeria for about 30 years. When Aero Contractors wanted to sell the aircraft, a U.S. company came to buy it and used it over there.

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The issue is that when you want to compare airlines, don’t compare airlines that have gone down like Albarka, Chanchangi, Okada, and IRS, with others that invested in brand new aircraft. Albarka and the likes never bought brand new aircraft.

Airlines in the United States started with brand new planes, and you cannot compare them with airlines here that bought 15 to 20-year-old aircraft for operations. Before the former Aviation Minister, Kema Chikwe, banned aircraft that are over 22-year-old from commercial scheduled operations, people were bringing aircraft of above 22 years and they flew. The British Airways B747 aircraft that was flying the Abuja route, except they have changed it now, is over 30 years old.


Aircraft undergoing maintenance repairs

How much of these lead to job creation?

That means a lot of job creation for the aviation industry and we are happy. I can tell you categorically that aside from about 10 expatriates that we have to transfer technology and train our engineers on some few areas that we are not yet strong at, we already have about 68 local engineers that have the manufacturers’ type-course on those aircraft. They are experienced, they are current and most of them with at least 20-30 years of experience working on these aircraft and working across the globe (US, UK, Canada, and the Middle East). So we have one of the best teams on the ground. I can tell you that your aircraft is safe with 7Star Global Hangar. When you have 68 certified engineers, you have about 100 technicians working to support them. And these are just core licensed and certified staff. I am not talking about the planning department, technical records, quality and safety department, logistics, the store, and facility. The CAMO to track aircraft continued Airworthiness etc. Aviation is huge. Talking about our engineers, we just need to train and retrain them. Normally for a C-Check, you do not need more than 3 to 4 licensed engineers depending on the size of the Aircraft, the rest don’t have to be typed.

How expensive can it be, given that a C-check already costs an average of $2 million overseas?

A B737 engine costs $10m. If the aircraft is unpreserved for about five years, then you will spend as much as $1.5m to revive each engine because a lot of components must be changed. So, overhauling engines would cost about $3m; landing gear overhaul will cost another $1m. The cost of shipment, C-check, and other things that need replacement due to lack of proper ventilation, and corrosion due to atmospheric activities, all add to the estimate. At the end of the day, you will find out that by the time you are trying to bring back to service an aircraft, whose value is $50 to $60m due to poor storage, you are going to spend close to $6 million on it. So, someone will say instead of that, I will rather use that money to buy three good fresh-from-C-checks classic 737 airplanes and operate.

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Since maintenance is key, how much quality maintenance is on offer today?
The challenge is more of a maintenance facility, and I will tell you why. Aero was able to sustain those aircraft because of the level of maintenance that was being carried out. There is a jet in Aero Contractors that is owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). It is over 30 years old. Until a few months ago, when the insurance expired and it got parked, and engineers stopped conducting aircraft engine run, x-ray inspection, C & D checks, that aircraft could still fly after all these years. The NNPC bought that aircraft brand new and Aero flew and maintained it for over 30 years. I was part of the engineering team and I have done both C & D checks on it a couple of times. I know the history of some of those jets.


Jet A1

Let us go to Arik Air. The Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) just took over some part of Arik’s assets to form NG Eagle (a new airline). They are almost in phase four of the Air Operators Certification to start operations very soon. They have already painted two of the B737NG (Next Generation) aircraft for the operations. Arik bought those two aircraft brand new and they are very sound. AMCON can operate that aircraft for the next 10 to 15 years. It is a function of maintenance. That they have flown for several years doesn’t mean that they are tired. The point is that the longevity of an aircraft is a function of the owner or operator. So, whenever we want to compare ourselves, let us compare ourselves with the Aero and Arik of this world, and not with airlines that have gone down, or aircraft packed at the graveyard. How old were they when they flew into this country?

On the quality of maintenance, how many people even know that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is even operating above the manufacturer’s requirements? The manufacturer of Boeing said that you can carry out C-check every 24 months, but the NCAA says it has to be 18 months. That means that Nigeria should even use the aircraft longer because we are over maintaining them. Most People don’t know this, and it gives a false impression. I was in Aero Contractors for about 11 or 12 years, and because of our organisational culture, when the manufacturer says remove this component after 100 landings, Aero removes the same component after 70 to 80 hours. Lufthansa or BA does not do that. How many people do that? But because we are Africans, we tend to look down on ourselves. I have been in the industry long enough to know that there are two or three airlines in this country that have operated to international best standards. Yes, we have our challenges, and sometimes we have some business owners that don’t understand the sector very well, who after a year or two, assume that they understand the sector. But no! It is a very different sector where compliance is key. With the robust team that we have at the NCAA and its compliance drive, I believe that aircraft should even live longer here than in other climes.

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How much equipment have you acquired to show the seriousness it takes to maintain aircraft on a large scale?

We have invested over $5 million on equipment alone. These are equipment that the NCAA team came to inspect and they are satisfied and the equipment are all overhauled, calibrated, and up-to-date, and our engineers are well-trained on how to operate the equipment. We are happy and proud about the history Nigeria is making even in West Africa.

Aside aircraft maintenance difficulty for airlines, what other serious challenges do the airlines face and how can it be ameliorated?

It is not because I run an MRO, but if you look at the issue critically, you will find out that apart from aviation fuel, aircraft maintenance is the second most critical aspect of aviation, and it’s costly, and constitutes a problem for airlines in terms of cost. So, when you discriminate against a vital arm like the MRO when you are giving support, then the whole thing is a joke, as you are killing the industry indirectly.

No matter how small our MROs are, I want us to grow, so we need to be supported. Till today, I have not been able to get any loan from any bank. They will tell you that you are a new MRO, even though they know that airlines need to do C-checks and airlines need our services, but we should go and look for money anywhere first and operate for six months. After that, we should come and show them our account statements. But, if I can do only three C-checks, I won’t need any bank again.


NCAA logo

How much of government’s support have you received to bring this to fruition?

I want to use this opportunity to thank the Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika for all the support and encouragement, and the Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Capt. Musa Nuhu; the Director of Airworthiness Engr. Ajiboye with his team; the GM AMO Engr Sani and the entire team who participated in the success of the certification.

The support had been so massive which shows that the Minister and the aviation agencies particularly, the NCAA are willing and ready to allow businesses to grow.  I want to assure the Aviation Ministry,  NCAA, aviation stakeholders and the general public that the trust bestowed on 7 Star Global Hangar would not be taken for granted.

Wole Shadare