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2018, year of plenty promises, fewer accomplishments in aviation sector

By Wole Oyebade
28 December 2018   |   4:01 am
For all it is worth, the air travel industry is a major indicator of a nation's economy. Aviation mirrors the economy at large with improved passenger traffic, deepened capacity, efficient services and better infrastructure as indices of prosperous outlook.

New terminal recently commissioned at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. Photo: Google

Improved stability in local operations and facility upgrade at some airports notwithstanding, the air travel industry in the last 12 months generated a lot of motion without progress. WOLE OYEBADE recounts major events of the year in line with the promises of the current administration.

For all it is worth, the air travel industry is a major indicator of a nation’s economy. Aviation mirrors the economy at large with improved passenger traffic, deepened capacity, efficient services and better infrastructure as indices of prosperous outlook.

Nigeria as a country still emerging from the rubbles of economic recession, its air travel sector fared no better in 2018. Except for improved stability in airlines’ operations, newer routes and wider operations by private operators, and pockets of infrastructural face lifts, the industry recorded nothing of significance in terms of real growth. A closer look at events in the last 12 months suggests as much.

Another year of safe operations
One of the good tidings of 2018 is the zero crash in commercial operations. The industry, therefore, has the enviable record of three-year operations without a major accident.However, it was not all hunky-dory for airlines operations; as terrifying incidences were recorded. Quite notable was the emergency air return of Delta Airline’s A330-200 plane to Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, in February, after one of its two engines caught fire. Similarly, an aircraft belonging to Dana Airline also in February overshot the runway at the Port Harcourt International Airport (PHIA), Rivers State, and causing substantial damage to the aircraft.

Earlier in January, a private jet operated by Nest Oil skidded off the runway, and lost its landing gear at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja. In October, turboprop aircraft belonging to Overland Airways was gutted by fire during routine maintenance at the airline’s hanger at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) in Lagos. But in all incidences, among others, no live was lost.

The role played by the regulatory agencies to deepen safety in aviation is significant. Of note are the efforts of the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) to further release the backlog of accident reports and the implementation of their safety recommendations for safety purposes.

The AIB, under the current Chief Executive Officer, Akin Olateru, has released a total of 21 final reports in less than two years, that is, 52.5 per cent of AIB’s total of 40 final reports released since inception in 2007. The 73 safety recommendations issued since 2017, account for 47.4 per cent of the total 154 issued since inception.

It will be recalled that a 10-man special committee was also set up in April to review at least 120 safety recommendations and their implementation by airlines, regulators and aircraft manufacturers among others. Indeed, the industry has taken important steps in term of safety.

Airlines retain stability with some giant leaps
The harsh operating environment nonetheless, airlines continued on a roller-coaster ride, leveraging on partnerships to achieve some giant leaps. While many of the seven operating airlines really struggled to stay afloat, few enhanced dominance by improving capacity. Air Peace did the industry proud in September, signing over a billion dollar deal with Boeing towards acquiring 10 new 737 MAX aircraft in the near future.

The landmark pact by a Nigerian airline came at a time Air Peace received the third B777 aircraft in readiness for six new international routes and six Embraer 145 jets to ensure that “no city is left behind” in local and regional connectivity. Similarly, Med-View Airlines Plc., with support of First Bank Plc. and foreign partners acquired B777 aircraft for its Hajj operations and to revive the truncated London and Dubai operations. The airlines has, however, continued to slide, downsizing more operations and staffers lately.

More flight delays, cancellations
Quite notable in the operations of local airlines is one-too-many flight delays and cancellations in the year under review. For the first quarter of this year, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) recorded 8,825 cases of flight delays across the eight airlines. Statistics released by the Consumer Protection Department of the NCAA shows that 14,633 flights were operated by airlines during the period, while 208 flights were cancelled for various reasons.

Apparently piqued by the ugly trend, the NCAA recently summoned a stakeholders’ meeting of operating local and foreign airlines, urging the airlines to ensure realistic flight planning and schedule, even as regulatory agencies promised to address operational challenges facing on time departure.
This is happening at a time year-on-year air traffic showed slight stability in both local and international operations. According to the harmonised figures released by the NCAA in June, a total of 10.1 million local passengers and four million international passengers were recorded in 2017, compared to 10.7 million local and 4.3 million international passengers in 2016.

Amid the shortfall, industry stakeholders affirmed that the patronage was an improvement and assurance of better outcomes in the New Year. President of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), the downstream sector of the aviation industry, Bankole Bernard, said though the improvement could not be compared to past years, there are assurances of growth in 2019.

Bankole observed that 2017 and 2018 were submerged by economy recession. “But now, we are fast getting out of it with foreign reserves improving. As at now, foreign airlines no longer have the challenges of stuck funds in Nigeria. Consequently, the airlines are strengthening their inventory; either increasing flights services or widening capacity with bigger aircraft.

“Really, we cannot say that it is fantastic yet but we are sure of reaping the rewards in 2019. But government must show more interest in aviation development by supporting our own airlines with incentives like tax rebates, tax holidays and more business friendly environment. That way, we can support our own to grow just as all aviation countries worldwide are doing,” Bankole said.

Infrastructure upgrades, without airport concession plan
The Federal Government in October commissioned the new terminal at Port Harcourt International Airport (PHIA), which was followed by the opening of similar terminal at the NAIA, Abuja. The projects dated back to 2013 when the Chinese and Nigerian governments struck a loan deal of $600 million to build four new airport terminals in Nigeria.

The projects were important, especially to change the narrative at PHIA that has for three consecutive years earned the reputation of the world’s worst airport, according to The Guide at Sleeping in Airports’ international survey. But not enough! One of the main promises of the current administration in air travel is the concession of the airports, beginning with the big four in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano, for effective and efficient services. Nothing till date.

Industry expert and consultant, Chris Aligbe, concurred that the administration has done fairly well with the infrastructure upgrades, but “the airports concession should have come faster”.

“Really, the improvement has been gradual but not as many of us would have loved it to be. I said that because we should have gone beyond this. We should actually be talking about the concession of our airports by now, but one also knows the challenges of going through all the rules and regulations in the bid to do it properly.

“I think we need this concessioning. If there is anything this government has to do next year, general elections or not, it should execute the concession plan to improve aviation infrastructure. There has not been much improvement in our airlines’ sub-sector because flights are still what they are. Again, it is a pity we had glitches in the set-up of a new national carrier. Government has though removed Value Added Tax and Duties, the local airlines still need more support to succeed because the industry is grossly at its infancy in Nigeria,” Aligbe said.

Aborted new national carrier
Quite unforgettable in the year under review is the enormous reaction that trailed the proposed new national carrier by the Federal Government.
The government in July unveiled the name and logo of the proposed national carrier, Nigeria Air, at the Farnborough International Public Airshow in London, ahead of takeoff in December 24. With more details left for secrecy and growing outcry against “another waste”, the government suspended the project indefinitely in September.

But thankfully, the government in November began payment of ex-workers of the defunct Nigeria Airways Limited. About 5000 were penciled to receive payment of their salary arrears covering about five years and 30 per cent pay rise.Recall that President Muhammadu Buhari in September approved the sum of N22.68 billion for the payment of salary and gratuities of about 6000 ex-workers of the then national carrier. The grant was a part payment of the sum of N45 billion the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved over a year ago.

With some of these events at the background, Aviation Security consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), said the industry has not performed according to the master plan, which has plans for airport concession and new national carrier.

Ojikutu said more disturbing is the norm to run the aviation industry without any clear-cut policies amid too much interference.“Do you know of any government’s policy? Most of the times, there is no policy. It is when issues happen that they start talking about it. Rather than derive regulations from policies, it is the reverse around here. And that is the way I have found it in the last 10 years.

‘The main problem we have is that there is too much government’s interference in operational issues that we should have left in the hands of the public and private sector while strengthening the regulatory agencies to perform to the optimum without interference by the government. And until we really correct this, we not yet ready to develop the sector,” he said.