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Despite large fleet, 100% fare hike, disruptions await festive travels

By Wole Oyebade
28 November 2022   |   4:30 am
Barring a special intervention, local air travellers should brace up for another round of airfare hikes this festive season, alongside a high probability of flight delays and cancellations nationwide.

Passenger surge at Murtala Muhammed Airport (MM1), Lagos. FILE PHOTO

• N840/litre fuel raises airfares above N150,000 one-way Economy seat
• Local airlines, NAMA in rash of aircraft leases, facility upgrades to cope with high demand
• Not enough to curb delays, cancellation during harmattan, say pilots

Barring a special intervention, local air travellers should brace up for another round of airfare hikes this festive season, alongside a high probability of flight delays and cancellations nationwide.

Besides the harmattan haze expected to disrupt operations during the peak period, high cost of operations, especially aviation fuel crossing the N800/litre mark, has raised fares to N150,000 on one-way Economy class – subject to seat availability.

Indeed, local airlines are in a race to boost fleet capacity to meet surging demand from customers that cannot risk road travels. Also, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) has been busy lately, deploying advanced Instrument Landing Systems (ILSs) across the nation’s airports to enhance night operations and safe flights even at low air-to-ground visibility.

However, pilots and stakeholders told The Guardian that the huge investments would still not avert harmattan disruptions until local carriers acculturate both aircraft and crew to match the ground facilities.

With just weeks to Christmas, findings showed that flight bookings are already on overdrive. Destinations in the eastern part of the country – Asaba, Anambra, Benin, Calabar, Enugu, Owerri, Uyo among others – are beehives of activities. And where seats are still available, they sell for between N100,000 and N160,000 on one-way and N200,000 for round-trip Economy class tickets.

“We have since entered the peak season mid-November,” a travel agent, Ola Kazeem, said.

“Travellers are now planning the festive travels ahead to get good fares. That has also triggered increase in fares. It is expensive but most flights are fully booked. We are expecting airlines to deploy more capacity,” he said.

Apparently in response to demand pull, local airlines are rustling up fleet capacity and expanding route networks. Earlier in the year, naira-free-fall and foreign exchange liquidity crisis forced a massive dip in total fleet capacity, with only 38 out of about 100 airplanes serviceable industry-wide .

The market leader, Air Peace airline, at the weekend received additional Airbus 320 aircraft to support the festive operations. The new entrants bring Air Peace’s leased Airbus aircraft to 10.

Spokesperson of the airline, Stanley Olisa, said the current fleet would boost the Yuletide operations. “It will strengthen our operations as we also restart Yola, Uyo and Monrovia services and support our new connections as well as increase frequencies on specific routes.”

He added that Air Peace is committed to reducing the burden of air travel through provision of easy connectivity, strategic route expansion and investment in the perfect aircraft. He disclosed that the Lagos-Uyo and Abuja-Uyo services will operate daily.

Similarly, Uyo-based Ibom Air has also added to its fleet, wet-leasing two Airbus 320-200 aircraft. Chief Operating Officer of the airline, George Uriesi, said the aircraft were a stopgap measure undertaken to meet current demands and accommodate growth, while awaiting the deliveries of 10 brand new Airbus A220-300 aircraft in 2023.

“With this new capacity coming on board, we are delighted to inform our passengers that we have increased our offerings, providing more frequencies for their convenience,” Uriesi said.

Dana Air has also announced the resumption of its Abuja to Owerri, Enugu service from December 9, 2022. Similarly, Arik Air has recommenced its daily flights from Lagos and Abuja en route Owerri and Kano, to offer festive travellers additional frequencies.

ONE of the perennial hurdles before the expanded fleet is availability of aviation fuel to power the fleet as and when due. As at weekend, a litre of Jet A1 was sold in Lagos at N810, Abuja N825, Port Harcourt N828 and Kano N840/litre.

Chief Operations Officer of one of the airlines confirmed that the perennial problem of hike in cost and fuel scarcity still throb the industry despite quietude from operators.

“Nothing has been resolved but we are learning to cut our coats according to our clothes. That explains why tickets are above N70,000 and N80,000. At that, we are still heavily subsidising the rates not to pass the entire burden to the travelling public that are also struggling. We all are feeling the pinch but we expect the best during the festive season,” he said.

Acting Managing Director of NAMA, Matthew Pwajok, earlier told reporters that the agency had conducted a general overhaul of navigational facilities at airports nationwide.

Besides the upgrade of Instrument Landing Systems (ILSs) at all airports, the controversial Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) and Safe Tower facilities were also getting new equipment, estimated to worth N36 billion.

The massive rollout, The Guardian learnt, is part of measures to improve the status of facilities that had been abandoned over the years and deepen air safety nationwide.

Acting Director of Operations at NAMA, Jubril Haske, added that the airspace agency had invested millions of dollars in navigational equipment at all airports, and now left it to airlines to utilise optimally.

Haske hinted that there are new ILSs for safe landings at poor visibility, coupled with standard shorter routes for local airlines to use to their advantage.

During harmattan, the issue has always been the non-availability of advanced navigational facilities at most airports, or, where available, local airlines not measuring up to use instrument landing facilities like their foreign counterparts conveniently do, even at zero visibility.

NAMA’s optimism notwithstanding, pilots said not much would change during this harmattan season in terms of flying experience.

A charter operator and flying pilot confirmed that the airspace is indeed better than it used to be. “It is a huge relief that the Lagos Runway 18L has opened to night operations. We no longer fly blindly in our airspace. But that said, NAMA can still do a lot more. The ILS of RI8L (Lagos) is currently unserviceable. It leaves pilots flying Area Navigation (RNAV) or VHF Omnidirectional Range Radio (VOR) Approaches, which are non-precision. NAMA should address that.

“They (NAMA) also need to do a lot more in the area of radio communication nationwide. It is not good enough. Harmattan will surely affect our operations when it comes down heavily. Flights will still be cancelled for safety reasons,” he said.

Scribe of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), a think-tank group of the local aviation, Olumide Ohunayo, reckons that navigational infrastructure upgrade and its optimisation is a joint responsibility of the airspace agency and the operating airlines.

Ohunayo noted that while Category III ILSs have been deployed to major airports, “aircraft and crew that are not CAT III compliant cannot use the facility.

“So, it is not only the government that has the responsibility to upgrade the navigational aids and their uses. Once the airlines do not have such capacity, there will be flight delays and chaotic scenes at airports.

“What the airlines should do is to have operational planning that deploys aircraft and crew that are of the airport standard to regions that have harmattan haze. If you don’t have, then you may begin to plan your schedule on the afternoon-belt when the harmattan would have subsided. That is the way to balance it and not disappoint your customers,” he said.

Before the harmattan season, scheduled services have been slightly chaotic with delays across the route network.

Latest traffic statistics published by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) showed that in the first quarter of 2022, a total of 23,619 local flights were operated, out of which 14,121 or 59.7 per cent were delayed. The dismal record may be worse in inclement weather that is fast gathering in the northern region.

Ohunayo added that airlines currently leasing aircraft for the yuletide traffic boom should as well be selective in choosing airplanes that are of ILS CAT III standard to ensure that they operate at optimum hours and profitably, without excuses of harmattan delays.