Faced with lack of critical infrastructure at the nation’s airports and policy inconsistency, the aviation industry is on the verge of collapse awaiting a bailout
The search for safety in the nation’s aviation industry has remained a long and tortuous journey. Since November 20, 1969, when a Nigeria Airways BAC VC10 crashed on landing in Lagos, killing 87 people on board, the race to ensure safer flight operations has been on the front burner. And with the June 3 Dana Air crash also in Lagos, in which all 153 passengers and crew on board were killed, including some people on the ground, the issue of safety has again been brought to the fore. Unfortunately, successive governments have failed to go beyond mere policy pronouncements.
For instance, when on May 4, 2002, an Executive Aviation Service, EAS, BAC 1-11 aircraft crashed in Kano, Kema Chikwe, then minister of aviation, promptly placed a ban on all BAC 1-11 aircraft and aircraft older than 22 years from flying or operating in the country. In similar vein, and in an obvious reaction to the Dana Air crash, at the recent Safety Conference of African Aviation Ministers held in Abuja, Stella Oduah, minister of aviation, said government is considering lowering the age-limit of aircraft that could operate in the country to 15 years. If this policy is implemented, then tougher times lie ahead for the industry. Checks on the average age of aircraft flying in the country reveal that of the 64 commercial aircraft in the country, only 26 would end up meeting the new age-limit if adopted.
Oduah rightly admitted that the policy could have a short-term negative impact on the growth of domestic airlines, but added that the issue should be how to strengthen and enhance airlines’ viability as business concerns. “We will continue to encourage domestic airlines not only to grow in their individual capacities but also to consolidate wherever possible, so as to pool resources together for the emergence of more stable, viable and profitable airlines,” she said.
But stakeholders in the industry are already kicking against the proposed age-limit policy. With an already tottering industry, implementing such policy, they argue, would spell a death knell on air transportation in the country. Mohammed Joji, secretary, Airline Operators of Nigeria, AON, argues that there is no correlation between safety and the age of an aircraft. He draws his submission not only as a captain of several years experience, but also based on Amendment 167 to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, Annex 1 document on age rule, dated November 25, 2006, which states that age should not be a limiting factor for a well maintained aircraft.
According to Joji, the decision to retire an aircraft is basically for economic reasons because ageing aircraft require more frequent maintenance than new aircraft, which is usually undertaken outside the country in accordance with ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices, SARP, under the supervision of Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA. Therefore, he argues, imposing a 22-year age-limit on aircraft, much less the proposed 15-year is not consistent with the SARP. “It is one of the draconian policy decisions taken without recourse to the actual industry practice. A more modern 24-year-old B737-300 selling between $6 million and $8 million is older than a newer 20-year-old B737-200 selling for $2 million. Age under the circumstances is irrelevant. New aircraft are often purchased to add capacity to the existing fleet and not to immediately replace existing fleet,” Joji argued.
Ade Adefeko, head, corporate and government relations of a firm in Lagos, agrees with Joji. “If you maintain your old Peugeot 404 properly, it will serve you better than a new Mercedez Benz that is not well maintained,” Adefeko said. For him, rather than put an age-limit on an aircraft, it is the maintenance and certification of the aircraft that should be emphasised.
Stakeholders in the industry are worried that the trend of grounding an airline and phasing out of a particular model of aircraft after an accident, contrary to the practice in most of the ICAO member countries, Nigeria inclusive, is becoming a worrisome development in the country. Joji recalled that the trend of banning aircraft in the country began after an accident involving a Nigeria Airways F28 registration number 5N–ANF–S/N 11090, which crashed on November 28, 1983, at Enugu airport. This led to the selling of the eight remaining F28 aircraft in the Nigeria Airways fleet to some European countries, even though some of the aircraft were barely three years old from the factory when they were sold. “Our investigation has shown that by 2003, four of these aircrafts were still in operation – one each in Indonesia, Iran, Libya and Burkina Faso,” the AON scribe said.
In 2002, following the EAS air crash, it was the turn of BAC 1–11 aircraft to leave the country’s airspace. It is believed that the ban of BAC 1–11 contributed immensely to the closure of operations by Albarka and Savannah airlines, while two of Chanchangi Airlines’ BAC 1– 11, which had just returned from a fresh C-Check, which cost it over $800,000, were grounded and phased out. Chanchangi Airlines has continued to struggle to remain in operation since then. At the time of phasing out BAC 1-11 in Nigeria, the aircraft was operating in more than 17 countries.
Yet, the Sosoliso Airlines accident of December 10, 2005, at Port Harcourt airport involving a DC–9 aircraft registered as 5N-BFD saw the forced closure of the airline based on policy decision, just as the ADC Airlines accident of October 29, 2006, at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, NAIA, involving a B737–200 saw the closure of the airline’s business. Dana Air has also joined the list of airlines grounded after a crash. The only exception to this trend was the Bellview Airlines accident of October 22, 2005, in Lisa village.
Gbenga Olowo, president, Saber Travel Network, said airlines in the country have been sustaining injuries from government instability and policy inconsistency. For instance, he disclosed that extra frequencies and multiple designations to various airports given to foreign airlines constitute a major disservice to domestic operators. Unhealthy financial sector has also been blamed for the poor performance of the domestic carriers. “In my 30-40 years in the industry, return on investment, ROI, in the sector has revolved around five-10 per cent, if not less,” Olowo said.
Joe Obi, special assistant on media to Oduah, told the magazine that though experts and stakeholders have continuously maintained that age is not a barrier to safe aircraft operations, government is contemplating more stringent measures due to the peculiarity of the Nigerian environment. “If airlines are able to get newer planes, then it will become more economical for them to run their operations; older planes are more expensive to maintain. Besides, newer planes bring confidence into the industry,” Obi said.
But implementing the 15-year age-limit for aircraft may spell doom for the industry considering the huge capital outlay required to finance efficient operations and the fact that many of the domestic airlines are financially handicapped. Obi, however, said government is currently working on a process through which airlines can draw on credit facility at a single digit interest rate to run their business profitably. But this is just one of the many promises of government that have not been able to lift the domestic airline operations from the ground.
Akin George, chief executive officer, Aero Contractors, explained that with the age-limit policy, airlines would have to pay a minimum of $220,000 monthly as lease rentals on 15-year-old planes, compared to $120,000 currently being paid on 18-year-old planes, adding that the huge gap in rental cost was because of the scarcity of younger planes globally. “Lease rentals are definitely strong at this time. When you want to go into younger aircraft of 150-seat capacity, they are quite difficult to find at this point in time. So if we are even looking at what they call medium age of Boeing 737 planes that is 15 years old, we are still looking at the lease rentals of definitely not less than $220,000 or $230,000 in a month,” George said.
The consequence of this would be an increase in air services, said Mohammed Tukur, assistant secretary general, AON. He disclosed that air travellers should be prepared to pay as much as N60,000 for an hour’s flight. Tukur regrets that while stakeholders were trying to get more people to embrace air travel and by extension developing the economy, government policies have been a major clog in achieving this. With this situation, more passengers will opt for road travel ahead of air travel, meaning that businesses would be adversely affected, he said.
The prevailing situation is such that passengers are finding it difficult to get flights to their various destinations within the country due to the dearth of domestic airlines. Following the June 3 Dana Air crash, the NCAA grounded the airline and soon followed with the suspension of Air Nigeria and First Nation airlines’ operations. This situation has further crippled the already diminished flight availability in the country. Tukur told the magazine that he spent over five hours at the NAIA, Abuja, last Tuesday trying to get a flight to Lagos. This has been the situation with domestic air travel as the local carriers have been greatly decimated in number and fleet size, even after the forced recapitalisation of airlines in the country in 2008, an offshoot of the recommendations of the Paul Dike’s Task Force on Aviation Reforms of 2006. The recapitalisation exercise has since proved to be ineffective, as the fortunes of domestic airlines have consistently been on a steady decline; even some airlines that scaled through the exercise have either failed to operate or are now grounded.
For instance, NICON Airways, (formerly EAS), owned by Jimoh Ibrahim, chairman, NICON Group, has not operated a single flight since losing its aircraft to a bird strike incident on April 30, 2007, while Fresh Airline did not commence operation at all. Bellview, owned by Kayode Odukoya, has long stopped operation, but metamorphosed into First Nation Airline, recently, but it has been grounded by NCAA. In the last decade and slightly beyond, several airlines have either closed shop completely, temporarily, or are on the brink of collapse (See table).
As the crisis continues, AON has sought the intervention of the presidency on the continued suspension of Dana Airline. In a letter to President Goodluck Jonathan and the aviation minister, AON observed that as a result of the suspension, “the entire staff of the airline, their families and other dependents risk losing their source of livelihood, just as the operators of the airline also risk losing huge and significant investments in the country’s fledging aviation industry. For instance, for its over 540 staff, the airline currently pays about N90 million as wage bill monthly. Besides the staff salaries, there are other overheads such as the office and staff accommodation, and the increase in insurance premium. These are economic losses to the airline, the industry, and the economy at large,” AON observed. The Dana situation is a reflection of the troubled state of the airlines.
Adefeko disclosed that what is needed in the industry is a holistic cleansing. He explained that the country has not been able to achieve significant success in the area of aviation infrastructural development. “Safety in the aviation industry is also about infrastructure and not aircraft alone; you can have brand-new aircraft in the country, yet it will not be safe if the infrastructure is not available,” argued Adefeko. Industry analysts say Adefeko hit the nail on the head by making reference to the poor state of the airports across the country. For instance, the largest and busiest airport, Murtala Muhammed Airport, MMA, Ikeja, has Runway 18 Left, 18L, used for domestic operation. It is now a no flying zone at dusk. This is because the airfield lighting of the runway has not been functional since 2009 when the runway was re-opened for operation by Babatunde Omotoba, then minister of aviation, despite his promise that it would be fixed within three months.
The avoidable situation has been a source of danger to airline operations. On June 12, 2005, a Chanchangi Airline B727-200 aircraft skidded off the runway in Lagos and ended up in a gully after landing on a flooded runway. Barely a month later, a Trister Cargo airplane belonging to Almiron Aviation of Uganda crash landed at the airport and for about 24 hours, traffic in and out of the airport was stalled. On July 23, 2005, a Lufthansa airplane also ran into a ditch at the Lagos airport runway and occasioned the closure of the runway for several hours. Other airports also recorded several mishaps occasioned by poor infrastructure. On June 11, 2005, a B737 aircraft belonging to EAS Airlines skidded off the runway of the Yakubu Gowon Airport in Jos, Plateau State as it landed on a waterlogged runway. On July 6, 2005, an A330 aircraft belonging to Air France, on arrival from Paris ran into a herd of cows right on the runway of the Port Harcourt airport, killing all the animals.
But the state of the MMA 18L runway has remained the most embarrassing to the country. Stakeholders have continued to wonder how the runway lighting was exempted from the original award of the reconstruction contract. Prior to its reconstruction, airfield lighting was in place. The implication of this is that once it is 6 pm, domestic flights cannot take off or land using that runway, and are thus diverted to the 18 Right, 18R, runway, which is for international operations.
Last February, George Uriesi, managing director, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, said the delay in passing the 2012 Appropriation Bill was responsible for the stalling of the lighting of the runways at the nation’s 22 airports, promising that contract for the project would be awarded as soon as money was released. “We are going to fix the lighting in all the airports as soon as the budget is passed and money released for the project. It is shameful that there is no light on the runways; all the airports should have light and it will be installed”, he promised. But that promise was not to be as the aviation ministry transferred the runway airfield lighting responsibility to the Nigerian Airspace Management Authority, NAMA.
Industry operators are worried that a looming danger is in the air if urgent steps are not taken to address the lighting situation. Tukur cautioned that in the event of a mishap on the 18R runway, Lagos operations would be shut down completely. “If what happened to Dana Air had been on the 18R runway, then where will other flights land since 18L cannot be used from 6pm?” he asked. Yet, Tukur, a former coordinator of Chanchangi Airlines for over a decade, is livid about the cost of a non-functional runway to operators.
He explained that NAMA was shortchanging airline operators because domestic flights after landing on 18R would still have to taxi to the domestic wing of the airport – a journey of about 10-15 minutes, the same distance it will cover when it is set for take-off in the evenings. In the process, the airlines incur additional cost on fuel consumption for the distance and when ‘holding’ in the air before landing.
Last Wednesday, Oduah commissioned the airfield lighting at the NAIA. The completion of the airfield lighting, the minister noted, will go a long way in boosting the confidence of the flying public as well as airline operators since it will also greatly improve air safety in the country. The minister stated that the rehabilitation of the airfield lighting in Abuja is part of the overall effort by the ministry to refurbish and renew the facilities at the airside and terminal buildings across various airports in the country, describing the project as one of the critical safety initiatives embarked upon by the aviation ministry.
When the magazine contacted Supo Atobatele, general manager, public affairs, NAMA, he declined to comment on the issue. But sources close to the agency told the magazine that corruption was the bane of the airfield runway lighting project. According to our source, when the contract for the 18L resurfacing was awarded by FAAN, airfield lighting was not captured in it, which he said is an anomaly. Our source informed that the project, which could have been executed with less than a billion naira, was inflated by about five times the real cost. Oduah, last week, explained that in order to ensure proper and effective management of safety matters in the sector, the federal government approved the transfer of the responsibilities for airfield lighting from FAAN to NAMA “purely in the interest of the sector and in line with best practices.” This transfer could mean reposing confidence in the agency. For now, NAMA, the magazine gathered, is contemplating acquiring mobile airfield lighting as an interim measure to aid safe flight operations, especially in the evenings. Bethel Amadi, former chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Aviation, wants government to rework the cost of aviation projects, which, he said, is too high, when compared to what is charged by other countries for similar projects. Adefeko believes that ensuring a safe aviation business is not about airport remodelling, but about putting in place critical infrastructure to facilitate better operations and passenger experience. He cited the Kotoka Airport, Accra, which he said is not so fantastic but has greater efficiency in terms of facilitation. “In Kampala airport, Uganda, it takes about 10 minutes to get your luggage on arrival, while in Kotoka, it is about 25 minutes; but in MMA, it can take up to two hours in some instances,” he said.
Amadi faults the remodelling of 11 airports simultaneously, admonishing that repairing the four international airports as regional hubs will be better than fixing too many terminals at a time without completion, warning that the budget for the aviation sector for capital projects is insufficient for the volume of work being embarked upon.
For now, the aviation industry is definitely on a cliffhanger, even as it beckons for survival.