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Hurdles await foreign carriers as flight resume Sept 5

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Foreign airlines jostling for the Nigerian routes might be in for fresh hurdles as the Federal Government has raised the entry bar ahead of the September 5 resumption date.
  
The hurdle is not unconnected with measures to enhance health safety in the COVID-19 era, coupled with the decision to allow only airlines whose country had been fair to Nigerian flag carriers during the evacuation exercise.
  
To that effect, all foreign airlines vying for the lucrative Nigerian routes had been mandated to submit fresh applications for approval of the Ministry of Aviation. The Guardian learned that over 10 airlines had submitted applications as at last Thursday.
  
However, the plan to open the international airspace, with restricted traffic flow and four flights in each of Lagos and Abuja airports daily, has created confusion among the concerned stakeholders.

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As at yesterday, the Ministry of Aviation was yet to roll out the criteria for determining the foreign airlines that would get the daily eight slots among over 20 that are preparing to begin operations.
  
After about five months of COVID-19 induced lockdown, the government announced that international flights operations into and from Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, would resume on August 29. On Thursday, the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 further shifted the take-off date by one week.

Meanwhile, there were strong indications that commercial flights might not resume immediately at the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, even after its formal reopening tomorrow.

This is to enable other certain guidelines by the PTF on COVIC-19 and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), as well as rehabilitation of some facilities at the terminal buildings and internal roads to be completed.

The airport had been closed by the federal government since August 24, last year for rehabilitation of its runway and other facilities. The Guardian, which went round the airport yesterday, discovered massive reconstruction going on at the domestic wing of the terminal buildings, internal roads and entry gates, among other structures that could complement services and give the airport a new look when full activities are restored.

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New airlines were said to have registered and allocated operational offices at the airport to complement the services provided before now by three airlines- Arik and Air Peace airlines for the local flights and the Ethiopian Airlines for International flight services.

It was discovered that the dilapidated runway, which was the major reason for the closure of the airport on August 24, last year, had been fully expanded and rehabilitated.

The Nigerian market, the second biggest on the continent after South Africa, is one of the most attractive for about 30 foreign carriers that flew the route pre-COVID-19. Besides the geographical advantage of reaching most parts of the globe in about six hours, Nigeria has several airports for multiple destinations. The potential market is huge, out of which about eight per cent of its 200 million population currently travel.

At pre-COVID-19, total ticket sales was as much as $1.2billion yearly. But in the new era, the Federal Government has said it would enforce the principle of reciprocity in granting permission to airlines to resume operations.
  
Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, said the policy was informed by the ban that some countries placed on carriers from Nigeria, adding that the decision was taken in the interest of the citizenry.
  
Already, the ministry has started receiving applications from commercial airlines in line with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Act, in a manner akin to fresh processing that might disqualify some of the foreign carriers.

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It would be recalled that Nigerian flight carrier, Air Peace, was denied landing rights into United Kingdom (UK) and Canada during the evacuation exercises. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), which is saddled with processing the clearance for operation, told The Guardian that the ministry was yet to recommend any of the airlines or an operating approval for processing. 
  
Besides that hurdle, the maximum threshold of 1,280 passengers or four flights daily per airport is a source of worry for stakeholders. The benchmarked, which was set by the PTF, is a sharp contrast from an average of 30 flights that daily arrived and departed MMIA before the pandemic.
  
Sirika, at a zoom meeting with stakeholders, however, explained that the decision to allow four airlines each for Abuja and Lagos was a temporary measure to test capacity and preparedness of the country to handle challenges faced with COVID-19 as it affects air travel.
  
He said after two or three weeks of operations, things would change, adding: “The PTF on COVID-19 said they cannot yet handle a specific number of flights. That is the reason we staggered the flights.
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“We have done in a way that British Airways can come into Lagos today, while Virgin Atlantic comes in tomorrow. I am very sure we all listened to the director general of NCAA that not more than four airlines would be allowed for Lagos and Abuja airports as we resume. We are coming up with a template for that.” Travel operators, however, described the new regime as “confusing,” given that over eight airlines have already expressed readiness to fly Nigerian routes from next month.

As at yesterday, no fewer than 10 airlines have already expressed readiness to resume international flight operations. They are British Airways, Emirates, Lufthansa, Ethiopian Airlines, African World Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air Peace, Middle East Airline (MEA) and Air France/KLM.
 
A travel agent, Benson Olumegbon, said the plan to reopen international air travel was a right step, but “regrettable that we are not planning it appropriately.”He added: “The coronavirus thing is scary and everyone has to be very careful. But we should never forget that what is worth doing at all is worth doing well. I just don’t understand this idea of four flights or its 1,280 equivalence per airport daily. I am already selling tickets for seven airlines into the Lagos airport. What if all are scheduled for the same date?
 
“Is it that the government will tell them not to come or tell some not to drop off some of their passengers because the airport has passed its target for the day? I just don’t understand.

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“Aviation business deals with a lot of planning and clarity. This whole arrangement is not it for me. I expect those that know how aviation works should guide the PTF appropriately. The skeletal operation will not work for international flights.”
  
Industry expert and Chairman of Finchglow Group, Bankole Bernard, said the restriction was part of measures to scrutinise arriving travellers, but that that would be problematic when the airports open.
  
Bernard said the handlers must understand that Nigerians have a travelling culture and already itching to get on the move, noting: “Limiting the number of slots is like telling Nigerians not to move. It is important for the authorities to review the policy within one or two weeks of resumption. By then, it should be clear to all the direction to go.”

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He hinted that a number of Nigerian elites were already making their bookings for flights in the nearest future, saying: “The top destination is Dubai. Quite a number of people have pending vacations and businesses in Dubai and beyond. And you know that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is ever ready to welcome visitors, despite the pandemic and whatever hurdle our government might put in place. They know how to do the business.”

The Guardian investigation revealed that apart from businessman/women, others itching to flew out include Nigerians and foreigners stranded in the country and who could not afford the cost of evacuation by private or chattered airlines, Nigerians studying abroad whose schools have resumed, as well as those seeking further medical attention abroad.

Even the one week shift in resumption date is said to have already affected the arrangement of those eager to travel out urgently.Passengers have continued to express anger over the postponement of international flights. Since the federal government announced the August 29, travel agents have been inundated with enquiries about airlines available for flight bookings.

But because the federal government was yet to announce the lucky four foreign airlines to kick-start the international flight, there was little the travel agencies could do. 

Many of the intending passengers vary from students, families wanting to reunite with loved ones, stranded foreigners and several others. The Managing Director of Diplomatic Tours and Travels Akor Otobo, told The Guardian that several intending passengers were eager to travel, but because the flight frequencies was yet to be stated, they would still have to exercise patience. 

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He projected that by the time flights resume, most early travellers would be mainly stranded passengers who could not afford the very expensive one-way ticket (evacuation flights) that cost as high as $4,000. 

Although unconfirmed report said had the flights resumed today, Ethiopian Airlines would have been the first, British Airways, Air France, Africa World Airline would have commenced September 1, Emirates Airways on September 2, Egypt Airways on September 3, Lufthansa and Turkish Airline on September 4 and Delta Airlines Sept 11. But with the shift in date, there would be some rearrangements. 

Indeed, people have been venting their anger through the social media. Ibrahim Ishaq twitted: “Alhamdulillah, since April 10, my wife has delivered of a baby girl. Now, it has been four month, but I didn’t see her. Because of this situation now, I’m very happy for this. Thank you so much @hadisirika.” 

“Finally going to UNITED with my husband!!!!!!!! Six long months!!!! We were on the list for UK repatriation flights, but his travel docs arrived late.

“We can’t afford the ‘evacuation’ flights/charters taking place right now. It’s either keep a roof over his head or move onto the streets and pay £1k. I’m glad an end is insight for us all,” tweeted @take 29.

One Olumide said: “Thanks. Please sir, open up the international flight at Lagos this week, so international students can obtain their visa to be able to resume school by mid-August (school start date). The US embassy is ready to resume in Nigeria. Please open up bcoz of these students.”

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“Am frustrated and depressed already. I want to come back home to see my baby and husband and other kids. Please sir, it’s been four months already. Waiting any longer than this would lead to suicide. Please sir,” @Morire twitted.

IA Abiola tweeted: “Please sir… I have a relative who has been stuck here in the UK for over four months now and if she doesn’t return by August 4, her visitation visa for the UK will expire. What do you advise, bcos she booked a flight for return from London to Nigeria.”

A source at the Enugu airport said the contracting firm, P&W Contractors, completed the new runway, spanning three kilometers, on Tuesday and started addressing its shoulders the next day to give it a perfect outlook.

Officials of the Ministry of Aviation were sited at the airport yesterday directing activities, even as Sirika was still being expected at the time of filing this report.

Enugu Airport Manager, Mrs. Cecelia Oguama, who conducted officials round the airport facilities, told reporters: “You can see that we have made tremendous improvement and everywhere is looking new. By the grace of God, the scheduled reopening will play out on time.”

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Chairman, Southeast Governors’ Forum Airport Rehabilitation/Palliative Works Committee, Mr. Chris Okoye, told The Guardian that everything was being done to ensure the airport was reopened as scheduled.

Meanwhile, airport workers and operatives of businesses in the area beamed with smiles yesterday, apparently in anticipation of the reopening. A female staff, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “I can now believe the government when they are talking. Who will not be happy seeing what is happening here?

“It has been over one year that this airport was shut down for repair. We were not coming to work, except on exceptional cases and now, we are being given hope. Why will I not be happy?”

Mrs. Juliet Ogboka, who operates an eatery in the premises, said that volume of business rose since last week, adding that she no longer returns home with unsold foods like before.

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