‘Issues at Port Harcourt Airport don’t make it unsafe for flights’
Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Capt. Musa Nuhu, recently spoke with the media on the safety status of the country’s international airports, especially the Port Harcourt International Airport (PHIA), as well as other issues in the industry. WOLE OYEBADE was there.
Despite moves to concession the four international airports, how ready are they for ICAO’s safety and security certification?
We are working on it and I think airport certification is a major issue for us all. We are in discussion with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) as to when the audit will hold. Certainly, it is going to be in 2022.
Lagos and Abuja airports were certified a few years ago and currently, they are going through re-certification. There has been some progress. We have few gaps that are to be closed. Some have been closed. We are in the process of closing others. So, we are working closely with the management of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to close those gaps so that the re-certification process can be completed as soon as possible. Some of the pending projects are capital intensive, but we are working on them and I think we are getting some assistance from the ministry to give them the needed support.
Apart from that, we are also talking on initial certification for Port Harcourt, Enugu and Kano Airports. All the international airports have to be certified. It is quite a big project to certify five airports; two initials and three recertification exercises. It is quite a big task, but hopefully, we will get by as soon as possible.
Port Harcourt International Airport (PHIA) has a number of safety concerns. What is the current position of things?
Yes, there are issues there, but a lot of them have been addressed. Some of the people have talked about the Instrument Landing System (ILS). But the mandatory flight calibration and navigation were carried out on August 29, 2021. It is unfortunate and I wish people would clarify certain information before going to the public. Some of the information you have may be outdated, but we do appreciate people talking and raising those issues. Sometimes, they show you something you don’t see and you need to work on them.
They also said we have issues of cows straying into the airport regularly. But the last issue of cows we had at the airport was about 16 years ago. Since then, officially, the NCAA has never had any such issue. Like I said earlier, Port Harcourt Airport is one of the airports we want to carry out certification on and one of the issues raised is on the fences there.
Fences at Port Harcourt Airport are porous and it is one of the things we are working on for the certification of the airport. It is an ongoing project and we are working with FAAN on that and it is one of the things that must be done before the certification. There is still a risk of wildlife coming into the runway and the risk assessment has been done and sent to the airport operator.
Another issue they raised is the unclear markings at the airside. The runway markings are near 95 per cent complete as at September 4, 2021. Yes, there is an issue of runway central light. It is one of the issues we are also discussing on the certification of the airport.
Also, they said that there have been several incidents of aircraft skidding off the runway at the airport. I don’t know which of the incidents they are referring to, but I know we had one in 2018. Runway friction test was conducted on the runway on July 21, 2021 at the airport. Also, they said too much water on the surface of the runway, which leads to aircraft losing balance and skidding off. When did an aircraft lose balance and skid off the runway? The derubberisation of the runway is done regularly. The runway was last derubberised on June 25 and 26, 2021.
The main issue I know we have at Port Harcourt is the issue of the backup generators for the runway lighting. The ones they have there had some problems. I think they got burnt or damaged. To my understanding, FAAN has been notified and they are in the process of replacing those ones. Yes, we have issues in Port Harcourt, like every other airport across the world. We are working to rectify them, but I won’t classify the airport as unsafe.
The NCAA has finally approved new ground handling charges in lieu of operators’ yearnings and the need to bring the local sector at par with pricing on the continent. Are the airlines favourably disposed to this?
Those charges were done after consultations with the stakeholders – Aviation Ground Handling Association of Nigeria (AGHAN), Airline Operators Committee (AOC), Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) and the Ministry of Aviation. The NCAA did not just wake up and put figures together. We had consultative meetings with all the parties involved. Why should I be charging $300 in Nigeria and neighboring countries are charging $4,000 and you expect the ground handlers to give you the same service? That is not possible. Those charges are a reflection of what is in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region. Everyone agreed to it and we implemented the figures as agreed by all the parties involved.
To tackle airlines’ indebtedness, there was a plan to integrate airlines into NCAA’s portal, especially the domestic carriers, to facilitate their remittance of five per cent Ticket Sales Charge/Cargo Sales Charge (TSA/CSC)?
Almost all the airlines have been integrated. What we have done now is, when you are coming in, you won’t be given an Air Operators’ Certificate (AOC) until you sign the tripartite agreement on the integration to the portal. This will save us a lot of challenges that we are facing at the moment on the debt. Also, if you are renewing your AOC, too, we ensure that you must have signed that.
We have stopped the growth of the debt. There is a legacy debt. We are working with airlines to come out with their plans and a lot of them have come out with their plans and very soon we are going to be talking to them one by one on how they are going to settle their old debts. We are all facing a difficult time, but also, you must have a feasible plan on how to settle this debt. Maybe one or two airlines are in the process of integrating into the portal, and I think that should not be an issue.
What is the worth of this legacy debt?
I don’t want to give you a wrong figure. Even, the legacy debt, when you say something, the airlines will disagree with you on the figures you sent out. We need to sit down and do reconciliation with them. There is this reconciliation meeting that is ongoing with the airlines and that is why I don’t want to give a figure that I won’t be able to substantiate. The President and the Vice President of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) met with us on the debt issue and we are working on that.
I cannot write off any debt. I do not have the authority to write off a Federal Government debt without the approval of the appropriate authorities. We have to keep doing the reconciliation once the debts keep growing, but now, we have to stop the debts from growing. If we do reconciliation in 2020 and debts are still growing, I have to do another reconciliation. But now, we have drawn a line by insisting everyone has to come in newly. Some are paying and some have given us the timetable for payment.
If we say they should come and pay, all the airlines will close shop. What would we have achieved with that at the end of the day? Don’t forget, we are to also help to promote the growth of the industry, as much as we want our money and we want airlines to pay back the government money.
There is a circular sent to international airlines to allow passengers to come into Nigeria without mandatory COVID-19 test requirements. What informed the decision?
A lot of this information is not from the NCAA, but it is just that we are the people that are supposed to provide the information to the industry. There are lots of complaints all over the world that people are not able to board aircraft due to no fault of theirs. The platform is not working. You can imagine, you travelled to London and you are returning to Nigeria. You spend your entire money to do the test and you land at the airport, but because the platform is not working, the airline refuses to pick you up and you are there for two or three days. Is that fair on you?
The fact is that it eases the burden. People are stuck worldwide. Nigerians can’t come to Nigeria. That is why we decided not to punish travellers. If you put a system in place and the system is not functioning as advertised, and people are suffering, I think you need to have a review, especially if the people are getting stuck for several days. I received messages from New York and everywhere immediately the circular went out. There were celebrations across airports.
For clarification purposes, you still need to do the PCR test in Nigeria when you come in and you are still expected to make payment.
What is the number of new applicants for Air Operators’ Certificate (AOC)?
I know about three or four intending airlines are in the process and some of them have gone far, while others are initiating. The domestic industry in Nigeria is growing. People don’t feel comfortable going on the road. So, they prefer to travel by air. Also, interconnectivity is growing nationwide. For Nigeria Eagle (a new airline), they have gone far. They said they have the three minimum aircraft to start operation. Once I get the file, I can brief you, but I know they have gone far.
What is the safety compliance level of airlines after the Azman Air incident?
Our main means of ensuring compliance is through our surveillance. We have enhanced and standardised all our surveillance to make sure all the airlines are in compliance with all safety regulations. I know we have issues here and there, but none is major. We resolve them without any sanction or action being taken.
So far so good, we still have airlines making air returns and such issues. Air return is not a problem. When you have issues, you are supposed to come back and fix it. Planes are mechanical. Mechanical things, engine and hydraulics can go wrong at any time, but I think the airlines have been in compliance with safety regulations. Nothing is 100 per cent perfect.
There is a call to rejig AOC processes in the country. What is the update?
We will look at our civil aviation regulations after the new NCAA Act (still awaiting passage at the National Assembly). That is why I said when we are reviewing our regulations, we discuss with stakeholders. When people have issues like this, we sit down and discuss and we will find a way of adopting or changing our regulations to reflect such matters without compromising safety, security, efficiency and effectiveness in the system.