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Balami: Aircraft longevity depends on owner, operator

By Wole Oyebade
11 April 2021   |   4:10 am
It is not true that airplanes’ lives tend to be longer outside Nigeria than within, and I will tell you why from my technical background in this aviation industry.


An aircraft engineer and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of 7-Star Global Hangar (an aircraft maintenance facility in Lagos), Isaac Balami, in this interview with WOLE OYEBADE, said the low premium placed on local maintenance programmes has continued to rob the industry of full economic value and keep aircraft more on the ground than in the skies. Balami, who is also a former president of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), also called for support for indigenous Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MROs) facilities given the importance of aircraft maintenance, a very critical aspect of aviation.

• Dearth Of Support For Homegrown MROs Killing Airlines, Aircraft Optimisation

Airplanes in the country seem to retire faster than their counterparts in other climes. Can you shed light on the variation in longevity?
It is not true that airplanes’ lives tend to be longer outside Nigeria than within, and I will tell you why from my technical background in this aviation industry. My first job at the airport, 2006/2007 was at Aero Contractors Airline and the Canadian Helicopter Services that then owned 40 per cent of Aero Contractors. Aero today is over 60 years old. There was a time that the airline bought a brand-new airline and flew it in Nigeria for about 30 years. When Aero Contractors wanted to sell the aircraft, a U.S. company came to buy it and used it over there.

The issue is that when you want to compare airlines, don’t compare airlines that have gone down like Albarka, Chanchangi, Okada, and IRS, with others that invested in brand new aircraft. Albarka and the likes never bought brand new aircraft.

Airlines in the United States started with brand new planes, and you cannot compare them with airlines here that bought 15 to 20-year-old aircraft for operations. Before the former Aviation Minister, Kema Chikwe, banned aircraft that are over 22-year-old from commercial scheduled operations, people were bringing aircraft of above 22 years and they flew. The British Airways B747 aircraft that was flying the Abuja route, except they have changed it now, is over 30 years old.

Since maintenance is key, how much quality maintenance is on offer today?
The challenge is more of a maintenance facility, and I will tell you why. Aero was able to sustain those aircraft because of the level of maintenance that was being carried out. There is a jet in Aero Contractors that is owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). It is over 30 years old. Until a few months ago, when the insurance expired and it got parked, and engineers stopped conducting aircraft engine run, x-ray inspection, C & D checks, that aircraft could still fly after all these years. The NNPC bought that aircraft brand new and Aero flew and maintained it for over 30 years. I was part of the engineering team and I have done both C & D checks on it a couple of times. I know the history of some of those jets.

Let us go to Arik Air. The Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) just took over some part of Arik’s assets to form NG Eagle (a new airline). They are almost in phase four of the Air Operators Certification to start operations very soon. They have already painted two of the B737NG (New Generation) aircraft for the operations. Arik bought those two aircraft brand new and they are very sound. AMCON can operate that aircraft for the next 10 to 15 years. It is a function of maintenance. That they have flown for several years doesn’t mean that they are tired. The point is that the longevity of an aircraft is a function of the owner or operator. So, whenever we want to compare ourselves, let us compare ourselves with the Aeros and Ariks of this world, and not with airlines that have gone down, or aircraft packed at the graveyard. How old were they when they flew into this country?

On the quality of maintenance, how many people even know that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is even operating above the manufacturer’s requirements? The manufacturer of Boeing said that you can carry out C-check every 24 months, but the NCAA says it has to be 18 months. That means that Nigeria should even use the aircraft longer because we are over maintaining them. Most People don’t know this, and it gives a false impression. I was in Aero Contractors for about 11 or 12 years, and because of our organisational culture, when the manufacturer says remove this component after 100 landings, Aero removes the same component after 70 to 80 hours. Lufthansa or BA does not do that. How many people do that? But because we are Africans, we tend to look down on ourselves. I have been in the industry long enough to know that there are two or three airlines in this country that have operated to international best standards. Yes, we have our challenges, and sometimes we have some business owners that don’t understand the sector very well, who after a year or two, assume that they understand the sector. But no! It is a very different sector where compliance is key. With the robust team that we have at the NCAA and its compliance drive, I believe that aircraft should even live longer here than in other climes.

But why are our airports taken over by unserviceable aircraft, especially at a time of capacity deficit in local operations?
I will tell you why that is the case. You can see that 7-Star and Aero have Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities. In the wake of the COVID-19, palliative was extended to the industry by the Federal Government and different operators, including car hire services, got over N100 million. But none of Aero MRO, 7-Star Hangar, Evergreen Apple Hangar, and ExecutJet Hangar got any form of palliative. Now, if Air Peace, Arik, Ibom Air, or any airline comes to us to fix their aircraft, do we even have the spares or money to do it? If you tell them to take the aircraft overseas because the local MROs have not been empowered, can they get the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) dollars rate? Getting that is very difficult. So, can you sell tickets for N20, 000 or N30, 000, and then change N480/$1 to do maintenance overseas? It is factors like this that most times lead to airlines parking the aircraft just the way you see them being parked around.

It is not because I run an MRO, but if you look at the issue critically, you will find out that apart from aviation fuel, aircraft maintenance is the second most critical aspect of aviation, and it’s costly, and constitutes a problem for airlines in terms of cost. So, when you discriminate against a vital arm like the MRO when you are giving support, then the whole thing is a joke, as you are killing the industry indirectly.

No matter how small our MROs are, I want us to grow, so we need to be supported. Till today, I have not been able to get any loan from any bank. They will tell you that you are a new MRO, even though they know that airlines need to do C-checks and airlines need our services, but we should go and look for money anywhere first and operate for six months. After that, we should come and show them our account statements. But, if I can do only three C-checks, I won’t need any bank again.

I know that the minister has promised to carry us along in the next phase of palliative coming, but we are waiting because it will go a long way. If you give each MRO some money, we will stock up spare parts, essential tools, and work on some airplanes. We have land now at the Lagos Airport – about 30, 000sq metres-plus. We can build a hangar that can take four to five B737s for C-checks at the same time. But where is the money to do it? Yet to do that will affect our longevity as an industry.

How realistic is getting these aircraft back in operations?
There are aircraft that are still okay, though on the ground because of the lack of maintenance facilities and challenges facing the operator. Some of them can still be helped. There are those aircraft that have been out of preservation for about five years and at the end of the day, they become scraps. It is huge to bring them back after five years. The cost is economically not viable.

How expensive can it be, given that a C-check already costs an average of $2 million overseas?
A 737 engine costs $10m. If the aircraft is unpreserved for about five years, then you will spend as much as $1.5m to revive each engine because a lot of components must be changed. So, overhauling engines would cost about $3m; landing gear overhaul will cost another $1m. The cost of shipment, C-check, and other things that need replacement due to lack of proper ventilation, and corrosion due to atmospheric activities, all add to the estimate. At the end of the day, you will find out that by the time you are trying to bring back to service, an aircraft, whose value is $50 to $60m due to poor storage, you are going to spend close to $6 million on it. So, someone will say instead of that, I will rather use that money to buy three good fresh-from-C-checks classic 737 airplanes and operate.

Considering the importance of maintenance to aviation, how come the issue of MRO has not received priority attention from local authorities and policymakers?
I know there are people in the industry that are doing their very best. The AIB commissioner is one of those that are doing very well. While we complain about issues, we should also acknowledge those that are doing well. How many people know that Nigeria was the first to establish a guideline protocol when COVID-19 started? How many Nigerians know that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), and the European CAA copied from Nigeria, through the NCAA, led by Captain Musa Nuhu? It is just that we don’t get to appreciate ourselves enough. You could see how far we were moving before COVID-19. Even though we have our challenges, we have our strengths too.

It is just not easy to operate in this country. Overseas, there are MROs here and there where you can walk in, buy spare parts and the aircraft is back in operation in about one hour. But here in Nigeria, because you need just about $100 worth of spare part, your aircraft is grounded for two weeks, incurring an invaluable cost. There are aircraft in this country today, whether you fly them or not, you are losing as much as $100, 000 per day. Where do you start from? Yet, you have your fixed cost. So, when you see airlines surviving in Nigeria, it is just not easy.

When you give a palliative of N5b to many operators, it is not even more than what one airline like Aero or Arik can use. For a country as big as Nigeria, I think we can do much better.