Keyamo should stop meddling in air transport operations, regulations

The recurring meddlesomeness of the Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development, Festus Keyamo, in the operational and regulatory issues in the air transport sector, could easily pass as a dutiful interest in the sector.
Festus Keyamo
Festus Keyamo

The recurring meddlesomeness of the Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development, Festus Keyamo, in the operational and regulatory issues in the air transport sector, could easily pass as a dutiful interest in the sector. But that is tantamount to a breach of the extant provisions that damage the sector, and Keyamo should know better. Though the minister may mean well for this critical industry, he must stick to the remit of a policy driver and do less of the job of regulators – for which he has zero competencies.

For starters, the aviation industry is vastly regulated globally. Especially for commercial scheduled operations, given the enormity of investment and risks involved, all aspects of the operations are governed by strict rules and safety standard operating procedures. It is a precision-based industry that hates compromises, violations, and breaches of laid-down guidelines – irrespective of who the minister is.
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In Nigeria, the regulatory guideline is contained in the Nigeria Civil Aviation Regulations 2023 (NCARs 2023), which designates the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) as the apex body saddled with the duty of making regulations on various issues, including aircraft registration, air navigation services, airworthiness standards, aviation safety and security, commercial air transport, personnel licensing as well as aerodrome and airspace standards. The NCAA also provides allied aviation services. The guideline, among others, also recognises the Ministry of Aviation as “responsible for the formulation of policies and strategies for the industry” – not directly involved in operational and technical functions, and oversight duties. Specifically, and as a global standard, the NCAA is an autonomous body of core professionals that must be free from external interference.

In that regard, the recent case of Dana Air airlines has proven more of a breach than compliance with those job descriptions. It will be recalled that the carrier’s McDonnell Douglas (MD) 83 aircraft, inbound Lagos with 83 passengers and six crew members on board, skidded off the runway in Lagos. Barely a day after the incident and after the Nigeria Safety Investigation Bureau (NSIB) had stepped in to unravel the causative factors, a memo signed by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Aviation and Aerospace Development, Emmanuel Meribole, directed the suspension of the airline’s operations.

The memo stated that “it has come to the minister’s attention that recent incidents involving Dana Airlines have raised serious concerns regarding both the safety and financial viability of their operations”. Therefore, “In light of these incidents and with the paramount priority being the safety and well-being of our citizens and travellers, the Minister has directed that the NCAA immediately initiate the suspension of Dana Airlines’ fleet until a comprehensive audit can be conducted.” NCAA immediately complied and suspended the operations of Dana Air.

It is of note industry-wide that the minister lacks the authority to issue the NCAA an operational directive without infringing on its autonomy. Therefore, compliance with the executive order is a misnomer in modern civil aviation. The question is: by what findings and recommendation, authority or technical competency did Keyamo order Dana Air’s suspension of the entire operation, given that the investigation was ongoing? In a much more curious pushback on stakeholders’ resounding condemnation of the suspension, Keyamo, on a live television programme, pointed out past accidents involving the airline, including the plane crash of 2012.
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His words: “To mention some of them, you will remember that their plane was at a point approaching the runway and the door flew open, the door of an aircraft flew open. There were also incidents after the crash that killed Nigerians and I don’t want to keep deceiving Nigerians because I owe them a duty to be truthful. After all, it concerns their safety.” But the relevant question is: what is the significance of the 2012 crash to the 2024 runway excursion, and by whose investigation? Do Keyamo and the company know that each incident or accident is statutorily investigated, and specific recommendations made to ensure closure and improve operations? Is Dana Air’s entire operation being suspended for non-operational reasons? While Keyamo is right on the priority of safe and secure operation, what is the logic of retroactive punishment for past incidents?

By extension, the development is a test of the character and professionalism that are obtainable in the current NCAA. Could the NCAA inspectors have approved the operation of airlines and flights that are not safe and only needed a non-aviator minister to rein them in? If not, how come the NCAA didn’t act contrary to the uninformed position of the minister to save the industry from embarrassment? Was the decision to kowtow professional or a political consideration by the acting director-general?

Overall, the optic is not good for either the NCAA or the industry. Keyamo’s intervention implies that the country either has an NCAA that is complacent on statutory duties of safety and economic audit or one that is pliant at the behest of political officeholders and benefactors, who are ignorant of aviation protocols. Either way, it is extremely dangerous for the industry and the country.

The damages are glaring. By the directive to abruptly suspend the operation of the airline, the situation of the carrier is now far worse than it was a month ago. Just days ago, about 1,000 workers of the airline were laid off, and the airline’s lease agreement with creditors is now in jeopardy. This is coming at a time when Keyamo had just returned from overseas with the assurance that lessors would be more favourable to Nigerian operators, offering affordable aircraft leasing conditions. But will any credible investor or lessor still want to venture into a market where the minister could unilaterally order the approval or otherwise of air transport licence of local operators?
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Keyamo’s posturing is reminiscent of a sordid past of showmanship in the aviation ministry, but it is incumbent on stakeholders to insist on compliance with the laid down guidelines for the health of the sector. The industry has had ministers that in one fell swoop suspended airlines and meddled in the operations of various agencies. Routinely, they populate all the agencies with cronies such that the specialised agencies now have bloated administrative personnel than core professionals. Such abuse of power and disregard for expertise readily destroys confidence in the sector and sets the industry in reverse gear en route to oblivion.

The industry should demand from the ministry a sound policy direction to safeguard investment and improve the fortunes of the sector. There should be less meddling in regulatory duties. Keyamo has the task of fixing the broken aviation sector and the first point of call is at home. The apex regulator must be independent and made alive to its core remit of safety and economic audit of operating carriers as provided for in Section 4 (3) of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Act. Both local and foreign airlines must find the Nigerian environment friendly. If he makes the sector more attractive, global investors and service providers will come here and not our minister cloud-chasing in Hungary, France, London, Dubai and Saudi Arabia, seeking unimpressed stakeholders.
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