The Senate penultimate week sent a shock wave down the spines of Nigerians and aviation industry, as it declared that multiple air crashes are imminent.
For many in the sector, it was like saying the turbulent aviation Year 2005/6 with worst cases of plane crashes in the country, is sudden upon the country again!
A single air crash, from antecedent, is enough to ground an airline and two or three of such will bury an entire sector that ordinarily offers the safest means of traveling around the world.
But coming from the hallowed chamber of the Senate, the reverberating alarm bells must be more than an attempt to say something on the floor. More so, it was just days after Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yusuf Lasun, publicly said he refuses to fly local airlines due to their poor service delivery and risks in the sector!
For some keen observers, it was a blunt assessment of the troubled sector to jolt attention in a recession. But for others, including the regulators, it was a bad advertisement and a disservice to the domestic operators that are struggling to keep the flag flying in the most difficult economic conditions.
Indeed, the concerns of the lawmakers are not out of place. Senator Dino Melaye during the Senate plenary brought a motion on “Disturbing Development in Nigeria Aviation Industry”, to which Senate Deputy President, Ike Ekweremadu and Senate Minority leader, Godswill Akpabio, in their contributions, described the state of Nigeria aviation as very embarrassing with attendant risks of imminent air crashes.
Reason: given the current economic challenges, operators would cut corners to remain in business and in the process endanger the lives of air travelers. Indeed, in the last one year or thereabout, it has been mixed fortunes for operators in the aviation sector, including the international carriers that run the Nigerian route, given its high passenger traffic.
It would be recalled that foreign airlines operating in Nigeria in the second quarter of this year raised alarm over difficulties in repatriating funds back to their home country. The fund, from sales of tickets since July 2015, was estimated to have reached about $600million in total.
Apparently unable of bear its funds idling away in another economy, coupled with massive drop in patronage, the likes of Iberia and United Airlines stopped flying the Nigerian route. Others like British Airways started coming with smaller planes, while Emirate reduced operations to Lagos alone.
Introduction of the flexible foreign exchange policy by the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) last June brought relief to the sector, at least initially, before the implication dawned on all. With the policy, otherwise called Greek gift, came partial devaluation of Naira, leading to the foreign airlines losing about 40 per cent value of the stuck funds.
On the domestic front, immediate effect was the return of aviation fuel scarcity. Aviation fuel, otherwise called Jet-A1, is 100 per cent imported into the country and at the mercy of foreign exchange rates and its availability.
With the exchange rates mounting the roof top, price of aviation fuel rose from N110 to N230 plus per litre. Meanwhile, fuel alone accounts for about 40 per cent of the total operational cost of an airline.
Unable to adjust to the fuel hike, passengers started experiencing routine delays and outright cancellation of scheduled flights. Chairman of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Capt. Nogie Meggison, at a time said the airlines were down to 60 per cent in capacity. At least two airlines that further went below, in fact, shut down operations.
An airline that cannot meet financial obligations in buying fuel and paying salaries will obviously be incapacitated to carry out routine maintenance on its aircrafts. A C-check maintenance mandatory for commercial aircraft every 18 months costs between $300, 000 to $500,000 at an average Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility overseas.
Because of the huge sum involved, made worse by foreign exchange spike, domestic airlines grounded some aircrafts. Some went for maintenance, but never returned as operators do not have funds to foot the bill. The situation, therefore, explains why an airline had just an aircraft on the apron on the day it “temporarily” shut down operations.
To make matters worse, virtually all the domestic airlines are indebted in billions to banks and regulatory authorities. While they have no justifiable claim to fetch another loan from the bank, regulatory authorities like the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), among others, are going gung-ho to force some debts off already financially distressed airlines.
President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Bankole Bernard, who has been at the forefront of highlighting “the critical state” of the sector, lauded the National Assembly for saying it as it is.
Bernard said that the emerging truths and fearful revelations from the aviation public hearing in Abuja clearly vindicated the earlier position of NANTA and puts the defenders and apologists of the rots in aviation in a tight corner.
He said he was impressed by the position of the Senate, who warned the government to brace up and tackle the rot in aviation industry or be ready for fresh outbreak of air crashes in the country.
The President called on all other well-meaning Nigerians to join the campaign to restructure and restore the lost glory of aviation once noted as a robust and lucrative engine of Nigeria economy and social development in the past.
He said: “Three months ago, when we started the campaign to expose the rot in aviation industry, our traducers went to town to call us names with many of them saying NANTA was wrong to have visited the NASS, the presidency and the media to complain of the looming dangers facing our aviation sector. Today, we hold our head high that the truth is tumbling out from concerned Nigeria’s who once withheld their support to our earlier campaign.
”Member of the group, Adu Samuel, said that the concerns were long overdue, as the sector needed government’s intervention.Samuel recalled that the situation “was not this terrible when commercial planes were falling off the sky about 10 years ago.”
At the back of his mind were some of the worst air mishaps in the country. Recall that Bellview Airlines crashed in October 2005 and recorded a near mishap two months later. Another airline, Sosoliso, crashed in December 2005. Some 10 months later, Aviation Development Company (ADC) airlines crashed on October 29, 2006. In the crashes were over 300 eminent Nigerians that perished.
Such antecedents and current challenges facing the airlines notwithstanding, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has dismissed fears that airplanes in the country are no longer safe for boarding.
The regulatory authority said that the guiding operational rules in aviation are stringent with no rooms for compromise come what may.Spokesperson of the NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, told The Guardian that the realities of the current economic recession on airlines cannot be denied, with all having difficulties sourcing for aviation fuel and forex to meet their obligations.
However, the aviation’s international approved guidelines work as “a system that runs by itself and cannot be influenced by anyone or any situation.” Adurogboye said that the same system runs in Nigeria, with oversight officials at every point of an airline’s operations, because aviation is a matter of “life and death”.
He said: “Those saying disaster is about to happen don’t know how the system works and it is quite unfortunate that it is coming from that level. What I’ve discovered is that some people have natural phobia for flying and that is understood. But it is not to come out and say that planes will crash.
“Even the manufacturers know that some people dread flying and they have found solutions in in-flight catering and entertainments to keep travelers busy. If we all know how the system works, we will all board and go to bed,” he said.
The spokesperson said that NCAA would not relent in keeping tabs on the airlines to ensure that there is no compromise that would put any life at risk.
Workers in the aviation sector urged the Federal Government to rally behind domestic airlines to emerge stronger and more competitive.The workers, under the aegis of National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), said that the domestic airlines indeed needed support to become stronger for competition on the international front.
President of the association, Isaac Balami, predicted that more foreign airlines would still leave the Nigerian airspace as a result of the biting economic situation, but the onus is on domestic operators to fill the vacuum.
Balami said: “I see it as an opportunity for our airlines to come up. Let the likes of Arik, Med-View and other airlines that want to fly international bring in powerful machines such as Air-buses to compete.
“Airlines must take advantage of foreign airlines pulling out of the country to step up their game and government must encourage strong local airlines to take over their slots and before they come back, we have already taken our shares,” he said.
Balami, however, ruled out another financial bailout for the airlines. Instead, he said government could assist airlines by making available an aircraft leasing programme for all operators.
According to him, “Don’t give airlines money. If you want to help airlines, give them aircraft, lease planes to them to compete with other world airlines. Let the airlines have access to good aircraft, spare parts and let aviation fuel be made available because even if you give them 50 brand-new planes without aviation fuel price resolved, they will still go down.”
Meggison said though the situation was a specific reflection of a troubled economy at large, but the aviation sector remains critical to the health of the economy and should be supported by all.
He said: “Aviation is a yardstick or barometer for any economy in the world, be it Nigeria, United States, China or Japan. But the government needs to come up with policies, with purpose and vision to get us out of the woods.
“We believe in the present administration and the minister who is an aviator. We look up to them because they are in the driver’s seat to navigate us through this dangerous terrain that we are, at the periphery of a collapse. We are all Nigerians and hope that something will be done,” he said.