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Shocking revelations on the heels of crash: How four agencies crippled aviation industry

Posted by Kenneth Ehigiator on 2005/12/18 | Views: 675 |

Shocking revelations on the heels of crash: How four agencies crippled aviation industry

Airline operators stormed last Tuesday’s aviation stakeholders’ meeting with the hope that succour would come their way, but what they got was the big stick which may send many of them to close shop should they fail the audit President Olusegun Obasanjo directed should be conducted on their operations.

... As Obasanjo shatters airline operators

Airline operators stormed last Tuesday’s aviation stakeholders’ meeting with the hope that succour would come their way, but what they got was the big stick which may send many of them to close shop should they fail the audit President Olusegun Obasanjo directed should be conducted on their operations.

Beyond the airlines, the entire aviation sector in Nigeria is today in dire straits and requires, according to the president, very urgent attention, if needless waste of lives through air crashes were to be stopped. The operators came to the meeting on the platform of Airline Operators of Nigeria, AON, because, in the thinking of the airline owners, what affects one airline affects the other. With the exception of Aero Contractors, Overland Airways and Virgin Nigeria Airways, other airlines in the country were unanimous about the fact that same problems afflict their operations, to the extent that they are being currently put on the spot. They had always anticipated meeting with the president to table their problems, with a view to seeking solutions by way of empowerment by government to enable them procure new equipment as well as train and re-train their personnel, especially pilots, cabin crew and engineers. The three airlines were more concerned with upgrading of airport facilities which fall within the purview of government’s responsibilities than with financial assistance.

Fresh Airline chairman, Capt. Augustine Okon, took on the responsibility of articulating the position of the airlines at the meeting, in the process of which he articulated the five problems hampering their operations. In presenting their position, the operators contended that they were often the victims of the wrongs going on in the sector, even though, according to them, relevant aviation agencies had not been forthcoming in their responsibilities. They also said that beyond reviewing the country’s civil aviation policy, the Federal Government should be consistent in its policies for the aviation sector. According to Okon, the present aviation policy which vests so much powers in the aviation ministry was not healthy for operators because of the bureaucracies that trail its activities. What the operators would prefer, according to Okon, is a situation where the NCAA is autonomous of the aviation ministry.

For the operators, government’s policies are often forced down their throats without room for them to prepare for policy changes. The AON spokesperson said aviation parastatals as currently constituted were working against the smooth running of airlines in the country, and made a case for restructuring of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN); Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA); Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA); Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET), while also making special appeal for strengthening of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT). Okon said operators’ inability to operate with efficiency and effectiveness results from lack of access to finance, saying the problem of finance had made it impossible for them to acquire new and efficient aircraft. Virtually all the airlines in the country, with the exception of a few, use the Boeing 737 aircraft which price ranges from $45 million to $65 million. That, for them, explains the preference for old generation aircraft, which are much more expensive to maintain. To stave off this problem, the operators requested government’s assistance through an Aviation Intervention Fund. This Fund, the operators reasoned, would made long-term loan available to airlines, especially as banks in the country were not disposed to giving such loans because of the slow returns on investment. Okon said the Fund would also encourage lessors to lease new aircraft to operators rather than outright purchase. They suggested that government should kick-start the Fund with some $2 million which should be managed by a credible bank in the country.

Another problem area the airline operators reeled out was that of maintenance. They have been so often accused of not maintaining their aircraft. The AON spokesperson explained that since the nation has no hanger for aircraft maintenance, airlines are compelled to take their planes overseas for C and D Checks, with cost quantified in U.S. dollars. It costs an average of $150,000 dollars for a C Check, while D Check costs as much as $5 million. Okon said with appropriate hanger facility in the country, airlines would be able to adequately maintain their aircraft.

The airline operators also highlighted training as a problem area that militate against smooth and safe flight operations. It should be noted that safe flight operations revolve around constant training and re-training of personnel. It is an obvious fact that most airlines do not train the personnel, particularly pilots and cabin crew. Their fear is founded on the fact that the moment they put so much investments in training a pilot, for instance, he crosses over to another airline. But the operators’ argument is that the long years of abandonment of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), in Zaria, had made it impossible for the school to train pilots which they so urgently desire. According to them, the cost of training and re-training pilots overseas is expensive, since it is quantified in U.S. dollars. While NCAT is being rejuvenated to enable it cope with the sector’s demand for training of personnel, operators suggested government’s floating of an Aviation Manpower Fund.

The Fund, according to Okon, should serve to provide funds for training of airlines’ personnel overseas. He said the Fund should consist of part of the charges paid by airlines for use of navigational and operational facilities at the nation’s airports. Such charges include landing and parking charges as well as passengers service charge (PSC). The operators lamented the dearth of pilots in the country, saying Nigeria which hitherto exported pilots to other countries was now importing pilots. They urged the government to adequately fund NCAT, so, the school would be properly placed to produce 100 pilots and 100 engineers for the sector annually.

Although other operators spoke of their inability to source funds to renew their fleet, chief executive officer of Overland Airways, Capt. Edward Boyo, disagreed, saying his colleagues had not been taking advantage of available credit facilities overseas to enhance their operations. He told the president that his airline was able to procure its new equipment with facilities drawn from such international financial institutions as the U.S. Exim Bank. But to qualify for the facility, an airline needs to present a marketable proposal by way of route development.
One problem area which all the operators were in agreement was that of airport infrastructure and navigational facilities. It is the position of the operators that the nation’s airports lacked the necessary navigational facilities such as the instrument landing system (ILS), radar, runways, perimeter fencing and fire fighting equipment.

While NAMA is talking about the multi-billion total radar project of Nigeria (TRACON), designed to cover the nation’s entire airspace, operators would rather prefer terminal radar to make their operations smoother. For the operators, in as much as TRACON was desirable, its cost, put at N10 billion, was delaying its early completion. “Let government provide us terminal radar, and if there is money, they can talk of TRACON later,” said Okon at the stakeholders meeting.
The operators also said they had over time been deprived of the role of the military in commercial flight operations. According to the operators, the Air Force plays support role for commercial flight operators anywhere in the world as a way of promoting safety. They contended that years of neglect of the Nigerian Airforce (NAF) had deprived them of that role, and called on the federal government to invest in the Airforce to enable it assist them in their operations.

They equally spoke against call for re-capitalisation by airlines in the country. Their argument is that since airlines, unlike banks, do not trade with money, it would be nonsensical to ask them to re-capitalise. But, unfortunately, for them, that was the area that interested Obasanjo, who declared that government would not commit money into commercial airline operation in Nigeria.

According to the president, government will only be concerned with creating enabling environment for the private sector to drive the aviation sector. This, he said, government would do by investing heavily in renewal of infrastructure at the nation’s airports as well as implementing policies to the letter. He told the operators to get involved in mergers and acquisitions, with a view to forming themselves into mega carriers with solid capital base. To Obasanjo, those who are not ready to merge should quit the business. At this point, the operators had their hopes shattered by the president, who also ordered immediate auditing of their airlines to ascertain the level they had conformed with ICAO standards practices, and their aircraft to ascertain the level of their airworthiness. Thus, the stakeholders’ meeting for the operators yielded no gains, but losses, capped with the surprised grounding of Chanchangi and Sosoliso Airlines.

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