By Muyiwa Lucas and Ololade Adewuyi
You are about completing your tenure as director-general of NCAA. How has it been running the agency?
Almost six years have passed; we look back and give praise to God. Six years ago, we had those fatal accidents, and that was what eventually brought us in. At that time, the travelling public was mad with the Nigerian aviation industry. Thank God we took the challenge, and Nigeria is number one on the continent now. When we came in, there were over 40 airlines with Air Operator Certificate, AOC. We reduced that figure to less than nine.
One of the high points of your regime was the attainment of Category 1, which Nigeria needed so much. How did you achieve that?
It was a collective responsibility. The United States Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, Category 1 is a state audit of Nigeria; how Nigeria’s safety oversight can guarantee the safety of airplanes flying in this country so that they can fly to other parts of the world. That was the charge before us. There are eight critical elements you must pass to get this and we are glad we made it.
How big is Nigeria’s aviation industry, and what is its potential?
The industry is very big. When you have to go from Calabar to Sokoto, Yola to Lagos, we can travel by air within one to two hours. That is a good domestic market. Right now, how many people are flying? On the domestic scene, only about five to six million people are flying. If we look at that number, compared to the population of Nigeria, only a few people are flying. There is no reason why 50 million Nigerians cannot travel by air regularly. Like Stella Oduah-Ogiemwonyi, the aviation minister, said, “I want you to make sure that aviation is the first choice of travellers.” When you want to travel, you don’t think about road, you want to go by air, and that is what we need to do. We want to make it affordable, we want to make sure they get value for money. We are just starting it, and this can generate jobs, business. Aviation can create wealth for airports. These are large operations; we want to make travelling by air safe for people – pilots, engineers and air traffic controllers. When you look at other countries, they have two or three airports, Nigeria can boast of about 22 to 24 and secure. Our infrastructure are ageing; we need to put in a lot of money to develop new infrastructure because aviation is capital-intensive. The prospect is great; people can prosper in this business. Ethiopia Airline is an African airline that is going from strength to strength, Kenya Airways got partners and they are growing from strength to strength. Nigeria should not be an exception. That is why we talk to Arik, Aero Contractors and Air Nigeria, giving them the same advice. You can be great, you just have to support and sustain your growth. Safety must be the watchword.
There were reports sometime ago that Ghana had become the aviation hub in the West Coast, displacing Nigeria. How do you react to this?
I think with due respect and humility, this is not true. I look at numbers. The total population of Ghana is just a little bit over Lagos State. The economy of Lagos State alone is bigger than Ghana’s. There are more activities here. This is a strong and solid country; how many people are in Ghana? The way you know is this: British Airways has about 14 flights into Nigeria on weekly basis, and yet, they want more. If they do seven flights to Accra in a week, they are very happy. What is happening in Accra is this, sometimes we are very slow in taking decisions here, most of the things that we have fought and got for Nigeria, when we didn’t take decisions on time, Ghana signed for it immediately and took advantage. Nigeria is a sleeping giant, but once it wakes up, there is no stopping the country. We need to wake up from our slumber quickly and take decisions at the right time and move forward. Nigeria is a natural hub with the population, and the strength of what we can do, but if you want to be the hub, there are certain things you must not do. You can’t be losing power, you can’t alight from a flight and your luggage will not come out in four hours, those are not the things that are good for you if you are going to be a hub. For a hub, the most important thing is, you must be able to transit with ease. Most people that go to Dubai, they don’t go out of the airport, they spend all their money inside the airport and continue their journey. When you are transiting, nobody asks to see your passport. That’s the transformation agenda the minister is doing right now, and I salute her for this. She is committed to transforming this industry and making sure that people can come here and do their business without any harassment. Once we are able to do that, we make Nigeria the hub. In doing it, of course, security needs to be improved, we need to have better facilities at the airports; we also want to make sure we have more airlines. And once you have that, you are number one, a natural hub.
What is preventing the country from improving the standard of our international airports?
Let me say this, and I have said it many times, the Murtala Muhammed (International) Airport is a-1970 architecture. It has done well. A lot of people believe that we can refurbish it, but I don’t have that belief. You can only do little just to make it more comfortable for people. What we need is a new terminal building and I want to tell you that by 2012 we will start it; it is all set. Yes, a new terminal building in Lagos here. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo built that one; Goodluck Ebele Jonathan will build another one also in Lagos, that’s our goal, that’s our gain, no going back on it. So you are going to see gigantic structure here over the years; that is the way to go. First-class international airport, that’s what you will see. Then you can achieve your hub.
Many have made a case for a national carrier. Would you advocate for one at this point in time?
My position on the national carrier is very simple. National carrier depends on the definition you give it. Who owns it and who runs it? Those two must be very clear. Government cannot do business the right way; it must be private sector-driven. Again, that is why I salute the new minister; she believes that this thing should be private sector-driven. Aviation is a serious business. Let us have an airline that all of us can own shares in and everybody can be part of it. We must not run it aground, saying that the chairman must come from this place or that place. They must run it professionally. If you don’t do all these, then forget it, we are going back to the Nigeria Airways era. But if you leave them to run their own business professionally and independently, the sky is the limit of that airline.
What do you think are the lessons learnt from the recent Arik Air-British Airways London-Heathrow debacle?
I think the main lesson we learnt from that is that it was really a definition of slot and frequency allocation problem. My position as part of NCAA is simply that it was a question of bilateral agreement talks. For instance, you are giving UK 21 frequencies, 14 frequencies to British Airways and seven frequencies to Virgin Atlantic, to fly to Nigeria. Out of that, they fly 14 to Lagos and seven to Abuja. So, the frequencies also translate into slot allocation. In our case, they say frequencies don’t translate to slots; they say you have frequency but have no slot to land. They have to go and negotiate with the airport community and that is fine with me. You can go and negotiate but they must find slots for you. You can’t be signing frequencies without slots; frequency without slots means no frequency. That is my own bone of contention. What they were saying was that you cannot land at Heathrow; you can go to Gatwick, Manchester and other places. But the carrier said what we want is Heathrow. Of course Heathrow is prime in England, but Lagos is also prime for us, and so are Abuja and Port Harcourt. I am happy that we were able to resolve the issue.
What would you say has been your darkest period while at the helm of affairs at NCAA?
I think about two areas. One, when we lost an aircraft, the Beechcraft; it was of major concern to me. I was extremely disturbed because we still need to improve our search and rescue capability. All over the world, there are mishaps. According to the name, you search and you rescue. But in most cases, when we search, we only recover dead bodies, and that is not supposed to be so. We can still rescue them. Sosoliso’s case was very clear to all, and many other cases like that. The second thing was the Umar Farouk Mutallab incident, which happened just about this time, two years ago. When Mutallab got to the gate like every other person, he removed his shoe and belt, we saw him on our camera. When he got to the KLM boarding gate, they checked him, he raised up his hands, but at that time we didn’t touch his private part; it was sacred. But now we touch the place, we have trained our people properly; they now know how to search. That was tough for us. These are two major challenges that I will never forget.
Are you satisfied with the security system in the aviation industry?
Yes. We keep training our personnel. Our biggest problem is insider threat; when your own workers who are meant to protect the system can compromise and work for another group. That’s what we are battling now. We have just done a major international seminar, not only for Nigeria, but for the entire Africa in Abuja to see the work of insider threat. Nobody is immune; they may use the pilot, cabin crew, security people, they may use the cleaners to smuggle in to go and kill. So that’s why you must be very watchful of the lifestyle of your workers.
If you get an extension, will you be willing to take it?
It is not a question of extension. That is not the issue. Look, everything has a beginning and an end. Life has an end, let alone this job. The end is in the hands of God and it is very important that we accept this.
Give us an insight into your plans after leaving office.
I will be in aviation sector all my life. Whether I am in Nigeria or outside, or in a private consultancy or international scene, my life will still be in aviation. When I finished A-Levels in December 1964 and entered university in 1965, the only thing I have done since that time till now is aviation, nothing else. That is the only thing I know.
Are there things you feel you should have done before leaving office?
There are three things. We still need to work on our ageing infrastructure in Nigeria, and I am very happy that our new minister is doing a major transformation in that area. Like the MMA international terminal needs to be improved, we need to get modern infrastructure. We also need to fix all our runways and perimeter fencing that are falling out. Two, manpower is important. The people working with me now are old; we need young people, talented and trained people. We had good training and were very lucky because the federal government gave us foreign scholarships. We are not spending enough money now on training. Now, unfortunately, even the little one we have, we have a large number of people leaving this work and running to greener pastures.