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Why nothing has changed in local air travel amid new vigour

By Wole Oyebade
13 December 2019   |   4:18 am
Air travel remains the safest and fastest means of transportation globally. Even in Africa where road travel is dominant, the preference is fast changing in favour of the skies.

Front view of the domestic wing of Akanu-Ibiam International Airport Enugu. PHOTO: LAWRENCE NJOKU

The last 12 months saw a new wave of optimism rising in the local air travel business. With more investments by the carriers came new routes across the network. But sadly, nothing has changed in terms of critical infrastructure to support the growing asset, traffic demand and growth potential of the industry. WOLE OYEBADE writes.

Air travel remains the safest and fastest means of transportation globally. Even in Africa where road travel is dominant, the preference is fast changing in favour of the skies.

The most populous African country, Nigeria, is not left behind in the shift. Besides the poor inter-state road infrastructure that has more than doubled travel-time, the spate of armed robberies and kidnappings on the highways are swelling patronage in favour of the local airlines.

Growth in air traffic notwithstanding, very little has changed in terms of travel experience. Frequent travellers can tell that flight delays and cancellation had worsened and much to the pains of many.

Concerned stakeholders, though acknowledged efforts of the local carriers in the last one year, they said the industry would continue to be moribund until there is commensurate improvement in airport infrastructure, aircraft utilisation and more business-friendly environment.

A measure of stability, hope
For what it is worth, the local airlines have lately showed a measure of strength and stability. Except for Med-View Airlines PLC that had in the last three months quit commercial operations, eight airlines, including the new entrant, Ibom Air, are showing growth potential across their niche markets.

With a boost in capacity via aircraft acquisition, airlines like Dana Air, Arik Air, Aero Contractors, Max Air, and Ibom Air have expanded operations into erstwhile unviable routes for improved connectivity across the country.

Dana Air, for instance, recently welcomed two out of four proposed Boeing737-300 planes, to support new operations.

The Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the airline, Jacky Hathiramani, told The Guardian that the arrival of the first Boeing 737 aircraft was part of their promises to customers toward meeting the ever-increasing demands of air travellers.

After the turbulent years under the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), Arik Air and Aero Contractors also gained stability that has led to the reopening of erstwhile closed routes.

Air Peace airlines, with about 40 per cent stake in local aviation, showed more strength with newer investments in fleet acquisition and expanded route network.

As part of its ‘no-city-left-behind’ initiative’, Air Peace airline lately widened operations with its subsidiary, Air Peace Hopper, using small but efficient 50-seater Embraer jets in new routes. This has seen the airline flying commercial into Yola, Kano, Kaduna, Akure and Warri, Delta State. Last month, the airline commenced Kano-Owerri-Kano flight and has lately expressed readiness to open the Ibadan route via direct flights connecting the city to Abuja, Kano and Owerri.

The Chairman of the airline, Allen Onyema, said the plan was to massively expand operations from Lagos into mini-hubs across all regions of Nigeria and the West Coast of Africa.

A travel agent, Olayinka Abatan, said the more newer routes open, the better for the sector and the economy at large.

“This country has over 180 million people. No one can tell me that just about three million of them want to fly. A lot more of our citizenry wants to fly because it is the safest and fastest means.

“But, because there are no airlines coming to their nearest airport or the operating ones are not efficient, they have no option. So, let us have more routes open up and multiple airlines go to destinations. It will drive competition and no airline will take us for granted. This is good for the airlines, the industry and the economy at large,” Abatan said.

The more things change, the more they stay the same
The operational stability notwithstanding, the travelling public can still not find joy, travelling with ease and comfort that modern air travel brings. Besides the exorbitant cost of air fares, the problem of flight delays has almost made local travels a nightmare.

A recent check on some of the airlines indicated fares spike on some of the routes. For instance, a one-way ticket to Asaba or Warri from Lagos or Abuja now costs as much N65,000 to N70,000. A 40-minutes one-way flight en route Ilorin also costs between N45,000 and N55,000.

As if that is not enough, the Consumer Protection Directorate (CPD) of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has reported that at least 3,049 flights were delayed in October 2019, with the bulk of the delays coming from domestic operations.

A total of 16,426 flights were delayed in the first half of 2019, out the 30,043 flights executed by the airlines.

The acting Director General of the NCAA, Capt. Abdullahi Sidi, said the trend was unacceptable, and the domestic carriers especially, must begin to take proactive and realistic measures to tackle the delays.

Aviation enthusiast and publisher of the Nigeria Travel Mart.com, Simon Tumba, said improvements in network coverage were noticeable, but the achievement was quite far in between.

Tumba noted that the economy determines the growth. “Expansion without revenue is a waste. Nigerian airlines are not suited for growing routes with losses. They don’t have the financial muscle for such.

“There is a little the local airlines can do when you consider the national economic indices. Although the exchange rate has been relatively stable, inflation and purchasing power had not been strong, while airport infrastructure had not improved. The travel experience is still below international standard,” he said.

He advised the government to fast track the proposed concession of the airports, though in a transparent manner to get the buy-in of opposing aviation unions. “That will assist in the growth of airlines through expansion in regional flights, connections and code share,” Tumba said.

Blame poor infrastructure, not airlines
Top official of a commercial airline told The Guardian that some of the carriers, indeed, should be blamed for avoidable delays, though “more problematic is the poor infrastructure around us”.

“It is most convenient for passengers and regulators to blame us for everything that goes wrong in the system. Fair enough, the passengers have paid us and they except good services. But what do I gain from delaying flights that had been scheduled for multiple frequencies?

“The point us that there is very little an airline can do without the enabling infrastructure to support our services. Today, a little change in weather will not only affect one flight, but all the entire designated fleet and airlines on that route. As we speak, all flights for the east are facing visibility issues, yet they are all sunset airports that shut down by 5:30 p.m. How does one execute such service without delays? Airports around the world are round-the-clock. We thank the NCAA for their advice, but let them also see to the issues of enabling facility and environment for our little efforts,” he said.

Chairman of the Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON), Captain Nogie Meggison, said with the level of infrastructure development happening in neighbouring countries like Ghana, Ethiopia and even Rwanda, available facility in Nigeria is fast looking ancient and not in the class of what modern aircraft or airlines need.

Meggison said the local airlines were doing their best, but the development of aviation sector is a collaborative effort, with all concerned parties playing their parts, and as at when due.

Government must support through infrastructure
Member of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), a think tank group of the sector, Olumide Ohunayo, added that the government had demonstrated its support for the local airlines by sustaining both Arik Air and Aero Contractors at their most critical time.

But going forward, Ohunayo said the government must begin to give safety critical infrastructure the attention it demands, to complement and sustain renewed commitment of the airlines.

“Government should begin to improve the facility at the airports, expand the operating hours, and reduce the cost of operation at the airports that are not viable to attract services to them. They just need to concentrate on these safety and security requirements, and leave the airlines to the operations. That way, the industry will show progress and live up to its potential.

“I am not an advocate of government giving airlines bailout again, but having the infrastructure in place and the enabling environment. Government can also help with the availability of aviation fuel, if they can bring down the cost to improve services of the local airlines,” he said.

The Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of AMCON, Ahmed Kuru, had earlier urged the National Assembly to reform the aviation sector by reducing the different layers of charges by different agencies, which makes it extremely difficult for airline to survive in the country.

“There is something the National Assembly should do to help the aviation industry. Why is it that there is no airline in Nigeria that has successfully existed for 10 years? We have successful businessmen in Nigeria, which tells you that what is happening in the aviation sector is a structural problem that needs to be address and I think the National Assembly has a role to play,” Kuru said.