Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Repositioning the Nigerian aviation sector

Congratulations to the new Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi, and his Minister of State, Aviation, Hadi Sirika. The duo was among the 36 cabinet members inaugurated last Wednesday by President Muhammadu Buhari. Truth be told, I do not envy these gentlemen! The simple reason being that the task before them is Herculean.
Just last month, precisely on October 17, 2015, a travel website that goes by the name, “The Guide to Sleeping at the Airports”, made some startling revelations about the state of Nigeria’s airports. In its 2015 survey on airports around the world, the website rated three of Nigeria’s airports among the worst in Africa while the country also occupies the unenviable position of harbouring the worst airport in the world.

According to the report, “Every year, Sleeping In Airports conducts a survey asking travellers to rate their airport experiences based on the services and facilities available within the terminal, cleanliness, customer service, comfort and their overall airport experience.” According to a follow-up report published by the Cable News Network, the Port Harcourt International Airport is the worst in the world because respondents to the survey complained about unpleasant and unhelpful airport employees, alleged corruption, a severe lack of seating facilities, broken air-conditioning system and the fact that the arrivals hall was inside a tent. In Africa, the same Port Harcourt Airport was rated the worst, the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja ranked seventh worst while the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos was the 10th worst in 2015.
The worrisome thing is that in 2012, Nigeria got multi-million dollar loan to enable the country remodel 22 of its airports. Three years down the line, work had only been completed on a handful of the terminals. These are the ones in Ilorin, Benin, Yola, Sokoto, Kano, the VIP and Hajj terminals in Abuja, Owerri, Makurdi and Enugu airports. Aviation experts claim work was slowed down on the projects due to the removal of the erstwhile Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah, who initiated the projects while others attributed it to paucity of funds. Interestingly, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria kicked against the survey claiming it was wrong for it to have rated airports under reconstruction. Though there may be some truth in that assertion, it is evident that Nigeria’s aviation industry is sick and needs a lifeline.
On Tuesday, November 10, 2015, the Nigerian Television Authority on its flagship programme, “Good morning, Nigeria”, anchored by Blessing Abu and Kingsley Osadolor hosted some aviation experts who took a holistic look at the sector. Guests on the programme were Captain Roland Iyayi, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (who is a pilot), Captain Dan Omale, Mr. Chris Alegbe and Dr. Freedom Onuoha. They took a clinical look at the Nigerian aircraft, airlines, airports and aviation regulators.
In the opinion of the TV guests, the greatest challenge facing the aviation sector is the overbearing influence of government. There is said to be too much meddlesomeness by political office holders on the industry. It will seem that President Muhammadu Buhari even watched the programme as one of the key suggestions made by the experts was for the aviation ministry to be scrapped. It was said that only about four countries in the world have a ministry of aviation. It is also believed that there is too much bureaucracy in the sector as about 75 per cent of the work force is said to be made up of administrative staff while the remaining 25 per cent comprises the technical cum professional staff. Other identified challenges include inadequate infrastructures, corruption, policy inconsistency, high operational costs, huge indebtedness, obsolete regulatory framework, and inadequate security measures.
It will be recalled that not all Nigerian airports have perimeter fencing. Perhaps, that is why the country has recorded a number of stowaways. Sometime ago, herds of cattle were found grazing in one of the country’s airports. A couple of wanted terrorists have been apprehended at our airports in recent past. While I commend our airport security agents for those arrests, our airports are still more crowded than some markets with many people who have no business hawking or simply loitering around and constituting a nuisance. In the light of what took place in Egypt on October 31 when ISIS bombed Russian-operated airline in Sinai killing all 224 on board, it is imperative for Nigeria to take airport and aircraft security more seriously.
In terms of operational cost, a sister publication, Saturday PUNCH of July 18, 2015 reported the outcry of airline operators in the country. According to the story, the Airline Operators Association of Nigeria urged the Federal Government to review the charges paid by its members in order to reduce their high cost of operation. The General Secretary of the association, Mr. Mohammed Joji, told the media in Abuja that airline operators in the country were burdened with multiple charges which included five per cent ticket sale charge, landing and parking charge as well as passenger service charge and en-route navigational charge. Airlines are also subjected to paying Value Added Tax to the Federal Inland Revenue Service, which he described as abnormal.
Perhaps, it is this high operational cost that is making Nigerian airlines to cut corners and exhibit nonchalant attitudes towards their passengers. Not only do they review their prices upward arbitrarily, flights are delayed or cancelled without any cogent or verifiable reason. Many a time, they hide under the nebulous “operational reason” to commit this disservice. Not even the enactment of the Passenger’s Bill of Rights by FAAN has improved the situation.
Some of the solutions the aviation experts proffered at the prime TV programme towards repositioning the sector include the need to allow private equities into the sector and concessioning of the airports to private management companies. Already, with the demise of the Nigerian Airways, only private airlines operate commercial flights in the country. They also suggested that the country needs to move away from its present encumbered airports to smart airports that are fully automated. It is also imperative for the new ministers overseeing the sector to allow the different agencies under it namely, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, FAAN, Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, Accident Investigation Bureau, Nigerian Meteorological Agency and Sky Power Aviation Handling Company to operate unfettered. The industry can do with less bureaucracy and as such the staff ratio should be more of professionals cadre than the administrative cadre.
I have yet to come to terms with the rationale given by the Nasarawa and Ekiti state governments for wanting to construct airports in their states. There are too many airports operating below capacity in Nigeria and I am of the opinion that Abuja and Akure airports can adequately service passengers from these two states. We do not need another white elephants!
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