Editorial: Of Pilots’ Agitations, Intervention And Reality

Last week’s intervention by the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, in the conflict between the management of Air Peace and some of its pilot brought some respite into the local aviation industry as the sack earlier extended to the pilots and subsequent threat by the workers’ union to embark on strike would have led to another major crisis in the industry.

Beyond the threat by the leadership of the National Association of Airline Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE) to create disorder in the entire industry, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) also sounded a note of warning to the airlines that suddenly took the decision to lay off some of their pilots and engineers in the wake of devastation that had crept into the global investment sphere.

Considering the fact that local flights just resumed only for crisis to set in would have taken the country behind a little after the coronavirus invasion brought the entire world on its kneels.

However, whether the situation has been fully or partially resolved is a question begging for an answer putting into consideration the fact that things are yet to be stable in the entire economy including the aviation sector.

For now, it is not yet certain if the environment is safe enough for businesses to resume. The risk, however, has to be taken for life to move on. Air Peace had sacked about 70 pilots under its employment across its fleet and also reduced staff salaries by 40 per cent due to the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its business.

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The airline’s action was followed by the decision of Bristow Helicopters, servicing the oil industry, to also sack 100 pilots and engineers.

For the fact that pilots and aircraft engineers are highly pampered by their employers, the outbreak of coronavirus and its devastating effect on global investment, especially with the aviation and tourism sectors turning out the hardest hit, made it bit easier to rationalise the job and salary cuts and other unprecedented decisions taken by employers this time around.


An aircraft cockpit

We should not take for granted the fact that Bristow Helicopters, for instance, suffered beyond just COVID-19, as the ongoing downturn in the global oil and gas has also influenced and determined the demand for its services.

This decision has not been made lightly, but the state of the business and the very serious constraints caused by the spread of the COVID- 19 and the downturn in the oil and gas market must have compelled the company to take the painful, but decisive step to ensure the continuity of its business and delivery of essential services to its clients.

Even the minister conceded to this fact during his appeal by asking Air Peace to recall the maximum number of pilots that the airline can accommodate without going under.

Its decision to right-size as it were could be seen as one to ensure that the company had the requisite level of personnel to continue the safe delivery of its services to its clients, while also allowing the appropriate capacity for future growth.

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The justification for the employers’ decision was also evident putting into consideration that long before the torrents of sacking and salary cuts, the global aviation warehousing body, International Air Transport Association (IATA), had raised the alarm that the aviation sector would be the worst at the receiving end of the pandemic. Even now, Virgin Atlantic has filed for bankruptcy, seeking protection under chapter 15 of the US bankruptcy code.

Prior to taking that decision, Virgin Australia had filed for voluntary administration, a type of bankruptcy, in April. An earlier appeal by the airline for a bailout from the British Government was turned down by ministers, leaving the airline in a race against time to secure new investment.

In Africa alone, IATA had put airlines revenue loss at $6 billion, $3.1 million in job losses in aviation related industries and a $28 billion dip in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) supported by aviation.

If other countries’ leaders had acceded and done the needful, we are yet to see any record anywhere to show that Nigerian government had done what IATA proposed that governments would have to use combination of loans, direct financial support, and tax relief to minimise the impact of the pandemic on jobs.

This also came with an appeal to development banks and other sources of finance to support Africa’s air transport sector, which is now on the verge of collapse.

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For an airline like Air Peace, it took the grace of God for it to be allowed to airlift Nigerians who were stranded overseas. Effort to broker that of Canada never saw the light of the day.

Struggling under the heat of the pandemic and unable to take advantage of opportunities provided, the management was certainly left with no choice than to restructure internally in order to keep the business afloat as well as remain efficient.

As it is, there is actually a limit to which some of these organisations can withstand the current wave of catastrophe engendered by COVID-19 on investments.

It is on this ground we also advise that employees, who are still lucky with their jobs, show understanding with decisions like pay cut taken by their employers to enable the organisation remain in business for the good of all.

While we commend the intervention and reconciliation brokered by the minister as well as the understanding and the magnanimity displayed by the airline’s management, we call on the Federal Government to begin a systemic bailout of some critical sectors severely hit by the pandemic.

Wole Shadare