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Why Nigeria ranks top in global unserviceable airplane poll

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Some of the unserviceable aircraft at Lagos airport.

How poor funding, wrong equipment, zero maintenance facility populate boneyards
• Experts blame regulators, wrong business models

Nigeria has ranked top among countries with the highest number of unserviceable aircraft in global commercial aviation.

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CH aviation, a Swiss-based firm that specialises in data and information gathering for global aviation operators, estimated that Nigeria, though with smaller industry, now ranks higher than Germany, United Kingdom, Argentina, and Malaysia in the top countries with the highest number of retired airplanes.
 
Findings by The Guardian showed that the high toll of abandoned or retired aircraft in airports nationwide earned Nigeria the unenviable top spot. This is not unconnected with operators’ penchant for the cheaper middle-range jet engine aircraft type, which often turns out to be a wrong choice, in the long run, coupled with the lack of maintenance facility to support the aircraft and ease the burden of the cost locally.
 
Experts did not spare the quality of regulatory oversight and wrong business models used by some operating carriers for the waste. They queried the regulatory body for not, as a policy, insisting on a smaller aircraft type that fits the peculiarity of the Nigerian environment, over the popular middle-range jets that are most ideal for regional operations.
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The 2021 CH report of 10 countries with the most unserviceable aircraft has Nigeria polling 69.2 per cent. Next is Germany, 51.2 per cent. Others include the United Kingdom, Argentina and Malaysia.
 
Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, who also referenced the CH aviation report recently, said one of the reasons for Nigeria having more airplanes in the graveyard than in the skyline was due to poor funding of the airlines to run well and do maintenance as and when due.
 
But partly due to poor funding, Sirika said, the norm is for aircraft that are due for maintenance and engine change to be on the ground for months without end.
 
He added that the choice of equipment that is deployed, getting professionals in the industry and allowing them to work as they should, all determine the profitability and sustenance of the business – both of which are rare in the local operating environment.
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“There is no way you (operator) can compete and compare yourself with the airlines that are properly kitted with the right type of equipment – talk of aircraft that consumes less fuel, requires less maintenance, the cheaper premium on insurance and quite simple to operate for the pilot – when you do not have the right type of aircraft.
 
“The request is, those of you that decide to put your money in civil aviation, kindly seek professional advice and invest your money where you will be properly advised. It is not as easy as you see it. Aviation is not 140 passengers by N40, 000 to Kano. No!
 
“This is a precise industry with minimum margin, and highly volatile. It is an industry that you need to understand. Being a pilot or engineer like me does not give you the right to understand the market, the business and civil aviation. You need to partake, acquire the knowledge, feel it, eat it and live it.”
 
The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) estimated that more than 50 registered airlines have bit the dust in the last three decades, with the carcass of their erstwhile operations visible across airports.
 
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Besides, the local scheduled carriers, of which nine are in operation, operate more Boeing737 aircraft types because they are offered at giveaway prices in Europe, yet arguably not the most suitable or profitable for the Nigerian environment.
 
According to experts, the Boeing series are not fuel-efficient, and very expensive to maintain, which explains why global airlines phase them out to acquire the latest range of more efficient aircraft.
 
Chief Operating Officer of a local airline said “between an old Boeing 737 jet that costs $1.5 million and new aircraft that cost more than twice or thrice, which will you buy? Most airline owners are going for the cheaper Boeing because they are like giveaway offers; buy-one-get-one-free.
 
“Yes, it looks likewise investment and it runs for between one or two years. When it is time for maintenance – C-check costs between $2 million to $3 million per aircraft – that is when it dawned on them that they have made the wrong investment. Instead of paying so much for maintenance, why not just abandon the aircraft and buy another one? That is the dominant mindset among our operators.”
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Besides, the Boeing series are middle-range aircraft that do better on regional two-to-four flight cycle. (A cycle is the operation of an engine from take-off to landing). But given the small size of the Nigerian landscape and comparative low traffic, the maximum flight time is about the one-hour per cycle. 
 
Former president of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Isaac Balami, affirmed that Nigerian carriers had been using the medium-range aircraft for short-haul domestic flights, describing it as the bane of unaffordable cost of maintenance, business failure and a high number of unserviceable aircraft.
Balami, an engineer and CEO of 7 Stars Global Hangar, said he was not surprised by the rating, given that Nigeria accounts for 80 per cent of all aircraft in the West and Central African region, majority of which are the Boeing series.
 
“The problem is flight-cycle and maintenance requirements. The aircraft engine and maintenance schedule are measured by the flight-cycle. Lagos-Abuja is less than one hour, compared to other countries that use Boeing737 for three or four-hour flight duration. I was on a Boeing jet engine from Abuja to Jos for just a 21 minutes flight-cycle. And once you have reached your flight-cycle number, irrespective of the hours flown or passenger traffic, you must go for maintenance.”
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An airline like Overland Airways uses small aircraft like the ATR turboprop aircraft, which is deemed the right type for local operations. Aero Contractors and Arik Air have some Dash-8 and turboprops. Air Peace is acquiring Embraer 145 jets of about 50 passenger seats – all of which are the right equipment for short-hauls and easy to fill up on low traffic routes.
 
Balami observed that part of the problem is that the average Nigerian traveller is over-pampered with the more comfortable Boeing jets than less-fancied smaller aircraft that are the norm in domestic operations globally.
 
“First Nation (now defunct) was operating one-hour Lagos-Abuja flights with Airbus that ordinarily should do an average of four or five-hour flight non-stop. By the time maintenance is due, then there is a big problem. I think Nigerians should get used to the smaller aircraft types like the ATR. They are safer and cost-effective than Boeing.
 
“In the days of Nigeria Airways, pilots were type-rated on Boeing737 and people also got used to jet engines. It was okay to fly Boeing then because Nigeria Airways had no competition so it was profitable. Private airlines that came upstream after Nigeria Airways poached pilots that had already been trained on Boeing. So they went for such aircraft type too. On Boeing, if you have 50 per cent load factor, you are running at a loss, but on the likes of Embraer-145, Dash 8 and ATR, you are just fine and in business.”
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Balami said further that it was regrettable that the government has not deemed it fit to establish a Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility in Nigeria in the whole of 60 years of independence.
 
He said efforts by the private sector to establish the critical facility to support both airlines and the industry had been frustrated by government policies and refusal of banks to support the venture.
 
Chairman of Air Peace airlines, Allen Onyema, said his preference for Embraer 145 and brand new E195-E2 jets was not to imply that used aircraft were unsafe but to meet emerging local and regional demands.

Onyema said that the main problem of airline operators is the high cost of aircraft maintenance, to which he proffered an adjustment in the applicable regulation.

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“The burden of maintenance is enormous and the capital flight is huge, depleting the resources of the country. I would like to appeal for a review of the regulations on C-checks because the manufacturers go by hours – 4000 hours before you go for maintenance. In Nigeria, they will tell you 18 months or at most 24 months. That is not good enough for aircraft utilisation when it is by hours flown elsewhere,” he said.
  
Findings show that average aircraft can fly for between 25 and 30 years before retirement. Globally, geriatric aircraft are kept in a storage facility (with minimal maintenance), gradually stripped of their over 350,000 individual components for sale, while remains are melted for scrap metal.
 
Recent trend is to keep the plane fairly intact and recycled for tourism and hospitality purposes. A Swedish businessman, for instance, turned a Boeing 747 into a hotel in a parking lot at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, Sweden. The hotel has 25 rooms and one suite in the cockpit.
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Geriatric airplanes in Nigeria are hardly treated accordingly because owner-airlines collapsed and are subject to prolonged litigation. Most of their aircraft got abandoned and rot away in the process.
  
Aviation security consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), said the oddly familiar rating was an indictment on the regulatory agencies that have a statutory responsibility to safety and routine audit of all operators, including aircraft flown by carriers.
 
Ojikutu said there are about 100 aircraft in Nigerian local industry that would require a yearly audit, maintenance and inspections. “But does the regulator have sufficient manpower to do this and even ensure that they (operators) are not cutting corners? In the past, Dr. Demuren (former NCAA DG) had to look for professionals from outside to do this for him and establish the true state of things.
 
“For me, the solution is with the NCAA. Air Peace is doing the right thing with the acquisition of Embraer jets. The industry should leverage on this right path and get things right,” Ojikutu said.

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