Nuhu: Nigerian airlines in compliance with safety regulations

Since October 2019 when he was appointed as the Director-General of NCAA, Capt. Musa Nuhu has piloted the affairs of the aviation regulatory body with courage and zeal. Coming with a wealth of experience as Nigeria’s representative at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) for many years, Nuhu has shown an unwavering determination to reposition the agency with highly skilled personnel, recertification of the country’s major airports, and correct anomalies of the past. He speaks with WOLE SHADARE in his Lagos office. Excerpts

Just recently, the Port-Harcourt International Airport was in the news for the wrong reasons of being unsafe and not proper for safe flight operations. Do you agree with that as a regulator?

This is a report from my Regional Manager in Port Harcourt. Yes, there are some issues there, but a lot of the issues that were mentioned have been addressed. Some of the people were talking of the Instrument Landing System (ILS); the mandatory flight calibration and navigation were carried out on August 29, 2021. It is unfortunate and I wish people will clarify certain information before going to the public. Some of the information you have may be outdated, but we do appreciate people talking and raising those issues. Sometimes, they show you something you don’t see and you need to work on them.

They also said we have issues with cows straying into the airport regularly, but the last issue of cows we had at the airport was about 16 years ago. Since then, officially, NCAA has never had any of such issues.

Like I said earlier, Port Harcourt Airport is one of the airports we want to carry out certification on and one of the issues raised is on the fences there. The fences at Port Harcourt Airport are porous and it is one of the things we are working on for the certification of the airport. It is an ongoing project and we are working with the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) on that and it is one of the things that must be done before the certification. There is still a risk of wildlife coming into the runway and the risk assessment has been done and sent to the airport operator.

Another issue they raised is the unclear markings at the airside; runway markings are almost 95 percent complete as at September 4, 2021, yes; there is an issue of runway center light. It is one of the issues we are also discussing on the certification of the airport.

 

 

NCAA DG, Capt. Musa Nuhu

Also, they said that there are several incidences of aircraft skidding off the runway at the airport, I don’t know which of the incidents they are referring to, but I know we had one in 2018. Runway friction test was conducted on the runway on July 21, 2021, at the airport. Also, they said too much water on the surface of the runway, which leads to aircraft losing balance and skidding off the runway. When did an aircraft lose balance and skid off the runway? The de-rubberisation of the runway is done regularly. The runway was last de-rubberized on the 25th and 26th June 2021.

The main issue I know we have at Port Harcourt is the issue of the backup generators for the runway lighting. The ones they have there had some problems. I think they got burnt or damaged. To my understanding, FAAN has been notified and I think they are in the process of replacing those ones.

Yes, we have issues in Port Harcourt, like every other airport across the world, it could be better. There are issues we are working on to rectify, but I won’t classify the airport as unsafe.

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How far has NCAA gone with the recertification of Lagos, Abuja airports?

Lagos and Abuja airports were certified a few years ago and presently, they are going through recertification. There has been some progress. We have a few gaps that are to be closed. Some have been closed, others, we are in the process of closing them and new gaps have come.

So, we are working closely with the management of FAAN to close those gaps so that the recertification process can be completed as soon as possible.

Some of the projects they have to do are quite capital intensive, but we are working on them and I think we are getting some assistance from the ministry to give them the support on those heavy items that they need to do. Apart from that, we are also talking about initial certification for Port Harcourt, Enugu, and Kano Airports. All the international airports have to be certified. It is quite a big project to certificate five airports; two initials and three re-certification. It is quite a heavy load to be done, but hopefully, we will get them by as soon as possible.

One recurring or unending problem between the NCAA and airlines is the issue of debts. The airlines are said to owe much without the desire to remit the 5 percent Ticket Sales charge (TSC) already collected on behalf of the NCAA. Is the NCAA planning to write off the debts? How much is debt?

 

 

Nuhu

I don’t want to give you the wrong figure. Even, the legacy debt, when you say something, the airlines will disagree with you on the figures you sent out. We need to sit down, do reconciliation with them. There is this reconciliation meeting that is ongoing with the airlines and that is why I don’t want to give a figure that I won’t be able to substantiate. The President and the Vice President of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) met us on the debt issue and we are working on that. I cannot write off any debt; I do not have the authority to write off a Federal Government’s debt without the approval of the appropriate authorities. You see, we have to keep doing the reconciliation once the debts keep growing, but now, we have to stop the debts from growing. If we did reconciliation in 2020 and the debts are still growing, I have to do another re-conciliation, but now, we have drawn a line by insisting everyone has to come in newly. Some are paying and some have given us the timetable for payment. If we say they should come and pay, all the airlines will close shop, but what have we achieved with that at the end of the day? Don’t forget, we are to also help to promote the growth of the industry inasmuch as we want our money and we want the airlines to pay back the government money. These are legacy debts. We are working with the airlines to come out with their plans and a lot of them have come out with their plans and very soon we are going to be talking to them one by one on how they are going to settle their old debts. We know, we are all facing a difficult time, but also, you must have a visible plan on how to settle this debt. Maybe one or two airlines are in the process of integrating into the portal, and I think that should not be an issue.

The ground handling charges approved by the Federal Government through the NCAA has been received with mixed feeling. While the ground handlers are happy, the airlines are kicking. What influenced the NCAA’s decision to have a new pricing threshold for the ground handlers?

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Those charges were done after consultations with the foreign, domestic airlines, and ground handlers. NCAA did not just wake up and put figures together. We had consultative meetings with all the parties involved. Why should I be charging $300 in Nigeria and neighboring countries are charging $4,000 and you expect the ground handlers to give you the same service? That is not possible. Those charges are a reflection of what is in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region. So, NCAA didn’t just wake up to come out with the charges, but significant consultative meetings with everyone like the Aviation Ground Handling Association of Nigeria (AGHAN), Airline Operators Committee (AOC), Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), and the Ministry of Aviation. It was agreed by everyone and we implemented the figures as agreed by all the parties involved.

How far has NCAA gone with the integration of its portal by airlines, especially the domestic carriers on the remittance of the 5 percent Ticket Sales Charge/Cargo Sales Charge (TSA/CSC)?

Almost all the airlines have integrated. What we have done now if you coming in, you won’t be given an Air Operators’ Certificate (AOC) until you sign the tripartite agreement on the integration to the portal. This will save us a lot of challenges we are facing at the moment on the debt. Also, if you are renewing your AOC, too, we ensure that you must have signed that. What we do is that we have stopped the growth of the debt.

Can you shed more light on the circular you sent to international airlines recently on allowing passengers coming into Nigeria to board without the evidence of payment for the Covid-19 test?

A lot of this information is not from the NCAA, but it is just that we are the people that are supposed to provide the information to the industry. There are lots of complaints all over the world that people are not able to board aircraft due to no fault of theirs. The platform is not working. You can imagine, you traveled to London and you are returning to Nigeria, you spend your entire money to do the test and you land at the airport, but because the platform is not working, the airline refused to pick you up and you are there for two or three days. Is that fair on you? The fact is that it eases the burden. People are stuck all over the world; Nigerians can’t come to Nigeria. That is why we decided not to punish travelers. If you put a system in place and the system is not functioning as advertised, and people are suffering, I think you need to have a review, especially if the people are getting stocked out of the country for several days. I received messages from New York and everywhere immediately the circular came out, there were celebrations across airports. Nigerians have been stuck for several days, living in humiliating conditions there. For clarification purposes, you still need to do the PCR test in Nigeria when you come and you are still expected to make payment. You have to look at things; you have to look at bigger pictures. You are not expected to punish anybody. If things are not working, you have to take a second look at them, be fair to everyone. It happened to me too in Ghana, I could not pay and I made attempts at over 20 times, but I couldn’t get through.

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When is the next International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) audit coming up and how far have you gone with your preparations?

We are working on it and I think airport certification is a major issue for us all. We are in discussion with ICAO as to when the audit will take place. Certainly, it is going to be in 2022.

How many private jets do we have in the country at the moment?

I think in the last five years, the number of private jets we have has reduced. We all can understand why – the economy has not been buoyant. It takes a lot of money to run a private jet, depending on the type of jet you have. It cost over $5 million to maintain private jets annually

How safe is civil aviation since Sept 11, 2001?

The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US have really changed the security apparatus in the aviation industry, a lot of security measures have been put in place. Pre-9/11, you could virtually go to any airport, get approval to go in, but now, you are almost stripped naked for security checks. It may sound inconvenient, but I will rather be stripped naked than go and be blown to pieces up there. It is one of the things that we just have to live with. Security is very critical.

Can you update us on the number of new applicants for the Air Operators’ Certificate (AOC)?

I know about three or four intending airlines are in the process and some of them have gone far, while others are initiating. The domestic industry in Nigeria is growing. People don’t feel comfortable going on the road; so, they prefer to travel by air. Also, the interconnectivity is growing between all facets of the corners of the country. For Nigeria Eagle, they have gone far; they said they have the three minimum aircraft to start operation. Once I get the file, I can brief you, but I know they have gone far.

 

Nuhu

What is the safety compliant level of airlines after the Azman Air incident?

Our main means of ensuring compliance is through our surveillance; we have enhanced and standardized all our surveillance to make sure all the airlines are in compliance with all safety regulations. I know we have issues here and there, but none is major. We resolve them without any sanction or action being taken. So far so good, we still have airlines making air returns and such issues, but air return is not a problem. When you have issues, you are supposed to come back and fix it. Planes are mechanical; mechanical things, engines, and hydraulics can go wrong at any time, but I think the airlines have been in compliance with safety regulations. Nothing is 100 percent perfect.

There is a call for rejig of the AOC processes in Nigeria, what is your view on that?

I served in ICAO for three and half years and I served as the Vice President, ICAO Council. Yes, we will look at our civil aviation regulations after the new NCAA Act. That is why I said when we are doing our regulations, we discuss with stakeholders; when people have issues like this, we sit down and discuss and we will find a way of adapting or changing our regulations to reflect such matters without compromising safety, security, efficiency, and effectiveness in the system.

Wole Shadare