Rekindling hope for a brighter aviation industry

 

A new administration is in place which beckons fresh hope for the aviation industry. The sector has not failed despite some challenges. The new administration can build on the template of the past administration while reviewing some decisions of fine-tuning or discarding some that are not people-friendly. The new team is equally expected to look at issues bedeviling the nation’s carriers, and importantly, the place of Nigeria Air, writes, WOLE SHADARE

New sheriff in town

A new administration was yesterday sworn in at a lavish ceremony in Abuja. From May 29th, 2023, the clock started ticking for President Bola Ahmed Tinubu who began his four-year first term and has to find urgent solutions to the myriads of problems bedeviling the country.

Nigerian airlines

Gains

One such sector is the aviation industry which has its own fair share of challenges and one which needs urgent attention because of its central role in the nation’s economy. Aviation is pivotal to the overall development of any nation.

Notwithstanding the challenges of the last administration, the sector recorded so many gains and at the same time witnessed so many downsides.

The sector in 2016 and 2019 was hit by crises that were beyond the control of anyone because of the global recession that slowed the growth of the global economy and was able to wriggle out of the first economic recession that hit it shortly after the assumption of power by the Muhammadu Buhari administration in 2015. That was the administration’s first baptism of fire leading to a shortage of Forex to pay airlines that had their funds amounting to over $500 million trapped.

One after the other, big carriers like the United States carrier, United Airlines, Emirates, and some others started withdrawing their services from the country. Gradually, the economy improved, and normalcy returned.

But the most devastating of them all was the COVID-19 pandemic that receded aviation. Nigeria quickly came out of it. In fact, the country recorded the second fastest recovery rate behind Colombia while domestic travel equally bounced back quickly.

In the area of infrastructure, no administration performed better than the Buhari administration in terms of airport or overall aviation infrastructure starting with the provision of airfield lighting for the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos runway 18/Left a couple of months which was left unattended to for close to 20 years.

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The quick fix of the pot-hole-riddled Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport runway was remarkable. For years, many airlines had their aircraft involved in incidents that forced many of them to threaten to quit operations at the airport.

In terms of air traffic infrastructure, the administration did so well in the upgrade of navigational infrastructure across the country with the introduction of new procedures and even the deployment of newer solutions.

The Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) had undertaken a holistic approach to improve the country’s airspace by committing a whooping N36 billion for the overhaul of the country’s air traffic management system, including the Safe Tower Project (STP).

Partial roadmap success

The last administration’s scorecard would be defined by whether or not former Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika achieved his road map for the industry.

The Minister rolled out a roadmap, which included concession, the national carrier, the cargo, the Aviation University, the MRO (Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul) aircraft leasing company, and so on.

While some of the items on the roadmap had been met, a few others like aerotropolis, the national carrier, and aircraft leasing company are some of the low points of the administration as it could not achieve them under a space of eight years which analysts said was long enough to crystalise any meaningful project or projects.

National carrier question

More disappointing to many is the way and manner the national carrier project was handled without the buy-in of stakeholders and other relevant participants making the entire project as desirable as it is one that did not receive the support of many people, with many of them terming it ‘fraud’ ‘non-transparent’ and one that should be canceled outright.

The view of cancellation has not gone down well with many who are of the view that the project is good but one whose process was fraught with so many questions that are begging for answers. They are of the view that the new administration should revisit the project and fine-tune the processes that would birth an airline that the majority would be proud of despite the hostility of some of the domestic carriers that are not comfortable with the idea of having a private sector driven national carrier that would or probably put some of them at a disadvantage because of their inability to improve on their services among several of their shortcomings.

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Airlines need lifeline

It is true that the astronomic cost of jet fuel otherwise known as Jet A1 did a whole lot of damage to airline operations in Nigeria. It is important to state that the jet fuel price hike was not one that affected Nigeria alone but the global aviation industry which made got the attention of bodies like the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The situation was further worsened by the escalation of the crisis between Russian and Ukraine.

However, not a few were of the view that had Nigeria put its refineries into good use, perhaps, the cost of jet fuel would probably have been lower than the N700 per litre or more that it currently sells.

Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), the umbrella body for Nigerian airlines had last year suspended operations due to the jet fuel crisis and cost before the government intervened to stop a crisis that would have hit the economy so badly. It is hoped that the recently commissioned Dangote refinery would help to cushion the scarcity of the commodity and costs to the advantage of the airlines.

The carriers equally suffered so much with forex scarcity. Aviation is highly dollarized. Most of the cost of operations is in the United States dollars. Many of the operators had had to defer costly heavy overseas aircraft maintenance due to lack of access to forex. The government would do well to open a new window for the airlines to access Forex. Doing this could probably help to stem the rising cost of air transportation in the country. In retrospect, the airlines and some others hold the view that N60, 000 one way domestic trip is ‘very cheap’ considering the cost of jet fuel, multiple taxations by agencies of government like the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA).

Experts’ views

An aviation analyst, Dr. Daniel Young said a lot of things had gone wrong, and by benchmarking what we have done in relation to other countries by looking at how to have a strong hub and see what we can learnt from them and add it to what we have done.

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“Aviation fuel is a nagging issue. The new airline must make sure aviation fuel is available and at a reduced rate which affected the airlines. The person coming to review the concession should do it devoid of emotions and arguments against it. It must not be thrown away because of your hatred for the past Minister. This idea should not die. It can be fine-tuned and not allow the gains of the last administration should not go to waste. It is not that bad but can be reviewed to meet the yearnings of the majority of Nigerians’.

Young called for building on the achievements of Capt Rabiu Yadudu in FAAN by the new FAAN MD. Former MD of NAMA, Mr. Lawrence Pwajok did so well by repositioning the agency rather than destroying it.

“The system is hemorrhaging and we should stop the flow. We should have patience with the new administration because the rabid criticism can discourage the most talented in the industry.”

Veteran aviation journalist, Nosa Osula-Aituamen urged the new administration to ensure it carries all stakeholders along in policy decisions where all stakeholders would have their input in view of changing the narrative.

She called for a deliberate policy that would protect the interest of the country’s carriers by ensuring the government helps them to take advantage of the many Bilateral Air Services Agreements (BASA) that the country’s carriers have yet to have the capacity to explore, noting that Nigeria can dominate air transport business in not only in West Africa but across the continent.

She lauded the Sirika-led administration in the area of airport infrastructure urging the new administration to consolidate on that.

She however carpeted the ex-Minister for many of the policies she said were retrogressive, especially on the national carrier; Nigeria Air which she said has become an albatross on the neck of the new administration.

Last line

As the new administration settles down to work, one can only wish it luck in tackling the myriads of problems in the country’s aviation industry with a view to repositioning the sector for greater efficiency.

 

Wole Shadare