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A week of nightmare for airlines, passengers

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Stranded passengers at an airport terminal in Lagos

Stranded passengers at an airport terminal in Lagos

How to address aviation fuel supply crisis, by stakeholders
Several days of pains, agonies and losses notwithstanding, the perennial problem of fuel shortage and scarcity in the Nigerian aviation industry will not abate until authorities begin to pay attention to infrastructure, logistics and local product refining. WOLE OYEBADE writes.

The supply of aviation fuel, otherwise known as Jet-A1, reached its all-time low at the beginning of the week, leaving both operators and passengers reeling in anguish.

The experience of air travellers, to use the word of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the regulatory czar itself, was “nightmarish!”

The tale was the same all across the country. It was an ordeal of air travellers packed in frustrating local terminals waiting endlessly. They watched as morning flights were delayed till afternoon. Afternoon flights delayed till evening, only to have same rescheduled for the next day! Where the operators are magnanimous, the flights are outrightly cancelled.

An Uyo-bound passenger, Abigail, was among those Nigerians that had their day ruined due to the development. Abigail told The Guardian that she had being at the MMA2 since 6:30am to catch a flight to Uyo on Monday.

“They started by not telling us anything, but after several hours of waiting, they announced that the flight had been delayed till 1pm. As if that was not enough, 2pm came, there was nothing. Only to announce at 4pm that the flight had been canceled.

“What manner of nonsense is this? I don’t care whatever their excuse is, they are just not being fair. Are they aware that travelers are out to catch some appointments? It’s just not fair,” she said.

Another passenger, Usman, had scheduled to traveled on Sunday but the flight was rescheduled till Monday morning. As at 5pm when The Guardian visited the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) at the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA) in Lagos, the passenger was still loitering in anger.

He said: “It is so disheartening. What manner of country is this? Do we have regulators at all? Even the message notifying me of the rescheduling came in after I had returned home yesterday (Sunday). Only to get here today and it is still same of the same. It is just not worth it,” the passenger lamented.

It was the day Air Peace Airline, in one fell swoop canceled five flights at 4:43pm. Passengers listened in disbelief as a voice came via the public addressing system informing that the flights to Port Harcourt; Abuja (two of such); Owerri and Enugu have all been cancelled.

Kenneth, on an Abuja-Lagos flight originally scheduled for mid-day, had to be delayed for several hours. The flight was later fixed for 22:15 departure time.

In another instance, some Lagos-Accra passengers had to get onboard, delayed for a while before it was announced that the flight had been cancelled.

While the airline operators had torrid time dealing with tempers of livid customers, their managers too were reeling behind the closed doors counting their loses.

Top executive of one of the airlines offered some complains. “We too are not happy with the situation and we are doing everything we can to fly on schedule. For every delay and cancelled flight we are losing lots of money. So, it is just an ill wind that blows nobody good. If we have fuel, we will fly,” he said on condition of anonymity.

An estimate has it that no fewer than N50b might have been lost in the last one week due to delays and cancelled flights operations.

This was notwithstanding efforts by some operators to ration flight services and hike fares at the counter. The Guardian learnt that passengers traveling routes like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt largely traveled without much hassle by Tuesday. But passengers of other destinations were left to lick the wounds.

Perennial scarcity since deregulation
The problem of scarcity though blew out of proportion this week, is a devil that is fairly known in the Nigerian aviation space. It was learnt that the sector had been grappling with the challenges of fuel shortage in the last couple of months.

Beg, borrow or steal, operators had devised several means, including patronage of black marketers, to keep their fleets running. And for their effort, about 40 per cent of airline operating costs had gone into fuel alone, as the price rose to about N120 per litre. Among the eight airlines notwithstanding, are 95 canceled flights and 2,815 delayed operations in the month of March alone.

General Manager and Chief Operating Officer at CITA Aviation Fueling Company Limited, Olasimbo Betiku, at a stakeholders’ forum on aviation fuel scarcity in Lagos recently, observed that the current state of the economy and scarcity in Foreign exchange had caught up with the aviation fuel that is 100 per cent imported into the country.

The situation is not helped by scarcity of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), which had ensured that the ‘essential commodity’ gained attention of all with Jet A1 falling into the category of alternative forgone.

Besides forex and priority issues, Betiku added that the lack of commensurate development in infrastructure along with population rise and growth in passenger movement in the last two decades had steadily put the industry in dire strait.

He said: “Between 1986 to 2016, we have seen steady population growth in the country with passenger movement increase from 8.3m (2006) to 13.4m (in 2016). Through this period, the infrastructure has remained the same across the country and now unable to support the supply chain. As a product that is entirely import dependent, transporting product has to rely on road trucks that is not helping the industry at all,” Betiku said.

A sector in need of new supply channel
Apparently sharing Betiku’s view on logistic gaps, Managing Director of Asteriks Limited, Charles Iloegbunman, observed that transporting aviation fuel from Apapa port to MMA, on busy Apapa-Oshodi Expressway was the greatest disservice to the industry.

Iloegbunman said: “I’m not aware of any aviation sector in the world that goes through such stress and still able to run prompt scheduled services. We need to have pipeline laid from Apapa to airport if we are really serious about ending aviation fuel supply crisis. Funds cannot be the problem. If we can spend N3 transporting a litre from Apapa to airport, multiplied by 700million litres used annually, then laying new pipelines should not be beyond us.”

Just some years ago, the norm was for a pipeline to supply fuel from Atlas Cove, through Mosimi and straight to the Lagos airport. But due to little or no maintenance culture, amid ruptured lines and contaminated supplies, the channel had to be abandoned for road transportation in the early 90s.

Executive Secretary of the Major Oil Marketers Association of Nigeria (MOMAN), Obafemi Olawore, added that that it was shameful that aviation fuel are still not refined locally, amidst difficulties of landing a the port.

But that is due to change, if one can bank on words of the government. Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, said that arrangements had reached an advance stage to commence the production of aviation fuel in the country to bring down the cost and regularise supply.

Sirika, while reeling out government plan for the industry disclosed that the ministry was working with the Central Bank of Nigeria, Ministry of Budget and National Planning and Ministry of Finance to include airlines in priority list of foreign exchange allocation.

Stakeholders are unanimous that the government has the wherewithal to really end scarcity of Jet A1 and prevent the “nightmarish” experience of the last few day. Their concern, however, is the political will to set machinery in motion.


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