Concerns as expatriate crew gulp N1.62b monthly flying politicians
• Over 60% of private jets are now flown by foreigners
• Stakeholders bemoan policy gaps, poor regulation, and job losses
Influx of expatriate crew into the general aviation services and growing patronage by the political class has been estimated to cost Nigeria an average of N1.62 billion ($3.89 million) in capital flight monthly.
The estimate, which covers only wages of $13,500 average per foreign pilot, stands to balloon with the addition of the cost of aircraft lease, insurance and fuel – all of which are sourced in foreign currency.
Compared to what it was 10 months ago, The Guardian learnt that the number of active private and commercial jets has doubled, with about 120 airoplanes crisscrossing the airspace. However, out of every five that land at airports nationwide, at least three (60 per cent) have a foreign crew in the cockpit.
Beside the heavy toll on scarce foreign exchange, stakeholders are also worried about the national security risk of exposing high profile politicians and potential presidents to foreigners.
As of June 2021, amid recovery from the devastating effects of the pandemic, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) had disclosed that about 46 out of 95 private jets were active in the country. But towards the end of the year, more aircraft came alive.
A commercial operator in Lagos hinted that the boom was in response to the upswing in political activities.
“High profile people, especially politicians, big banks, religious leaders and some musicians toward the end of December 2021 dust off their private jets as restrictions were removed in many parts of the world. So, we saw an increase there.
“In the last couple of months, politicians have dominated the airspace and for obvious reasons. Those that don’t have a private jet to their names started to lease on a short-term basis. And that is good business for us.
“Instead of two or three charter services, we started having five to seven a day and round the clock activities. So, we have seen between 35 to 60 per cent increase in patronage. We are still expecting more,” the source said.
The Guardian learnt that out of 147 airplanes that the Nigerian Customs recently head-counted for verification, about 120 are currently active and 60 per cent (72 aircraft) are flown by expatriates.
A Nigerian charter pilot, who did not want to be mentioned, confirmed the influx. He said almost all the current presidential and governorship aspirants and those rich enough to buy and maintain private jets are flown by expatriates.
“The 60 per cent is conservative; it will be higher. Yet, that is quite a huge number and the reasons are best known to politicians. The only professional reason will be that the aircraft has foreign registration and as such requires whoever is flying it to have the licence for the country of registration. However, some of those countries do give validations to enable people without their country’s licence to fly planes.
“Note that expatriates are paid in U.S. dollars ranging from $7,000 to $20,000. With the current high exchange rate, you do the mathematics of the capital flight. The locals get far less than their expatriate counterparts. The foreigners are kept in good hotels and transported to and from work. Some of them work half a year and get paid for a whole year’s work! I don’t know any Nigerian pilot that gets such treatment,” the captain said.
At an average of four pilots to each aircraft (depending on type and purpose), it suggests a total of 288 foreign crew to 72 airplanes and the wage bill ranges between $2.02 million (N840.32 million) and $5.76 million (N2.40 billion) total, per month. But at an average wage bill of $13,500 (N5.62 million) per pilot, a total of 288 pilots earn $3.89 million (N1.62 billion) a month.
The captain advised that the extant labour law should be such that for a foreigner to get a job in Nigeria, there must be no Nigerian qualified for that position. “This, I feel, is not the case because we have lots of Nigerian pilots with the experience and capability to fly these people safely and cheaper to any part of the world they want to go.”
Aviation Security Consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), reckoned that no law in Nigeria forbids foreigners from flying private aircraft, including domestic airlines.
“First, how many of these aircraft are Nigeria registered and how many are foreign-registered? How long should a foreign registered aircraft be allowed to operate in Nigeria without it being deregistered? The NCAA should be able to answer these before we can conclude that what the Nigerian operators are doing with foreign-registered and foreign crew do not result in capital flight.
“The foreign crew too could be agents of foreign intelligence agencies. So, the types of visas given to these crews by the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) must be verified by the NCAA and the Department of State Services (DSS), which should be regularly monitored to check their expiration. Our problems are not about the expatriates but the programmes or processes in place for regular monitoring, estimating or checking their backgrounds and those of their employers,” Ojikutu said.
According to the President of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Abednego Galadima, most of the presidential aspirants had leased aircraft but some of their own aircraft, adding that leased aircraft, most of the aircraft do not have Nigerian registration, and in this case, the law permits the use of expatriates for some period of time but the association frowns on this because it causes capital flight.
“I believe they can make do with our local aircraft service providers. The unemployment rate among our national pilots is a cause of worry for us as an association. Most of the unemployed are young pilots. This is affecting the future of pilots in Nigeria. This is not good for the development of the industry,” the NAAPE president said.
He said the unemployment situation is worsened by the tough operating environment for local airlines, especially with aviation fuel prices making it difficult for them to employ more pilots or train young pilots.
Chief Executive Officer of West Link Airline, Capt. Ibrahim Mshelia, also blamed regulatory policy loopholes that encourage the rare labour practices in Nigeria.
Mshelia, a charter operator, agreed that there is nothing wrong with foreign pilots flying in local airspace, especially for aircraft on wet-lease (ACMI) programmes so far they comply with principles of safety, economic and political considerations of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
“Everyone must comply with safety without any compromise. But the economic and political considerations are all up to us, as our natural rights. Do we need to have these foreigners flying in our airspace, absolutely no! These are politicians that are vying for offices to create jobs for Nigerians. So, why to give our natural rights in aviation away?” he queried.
Mshelia noted that since the time of Stella Oduah (as minister), he had recommended the need to create jobs for pilots by formulating deliberate policies that would keep foreigners away from jobs Nigerian pilots could do.
“I have an American licence but I cannot get a job in America, because I am not a citizen. We can create such laws too or have conditions that allow them to come if they are on a wet-lease, and if there are Nigerians who are type-rated on their aircraft type, then ‘you have to tell your country to give them (Nigerians) validation’, so we can have one split crew. That will reduce exporting our jobs to foreigners. There have to be deliberate policies,” Mshelia said.
When contacted, the head of NCAA public relations, Sam Adurogboye, said he was aware that private jet operators had engaged expatriates as pilots but the NCAA allows this because the agency works with manuals and documentation.
“If an aircraft is dry leased, according to its manual, then it means the aircraft will come with its crew and pilots. This doesn’t happen for wet-lease aircraft or aircraft solely owned by the jet operator or owner,” Adurogboye said.
He said the NCAA would not allow whatever is against the laws of the country.