Nigeria: The making of world’s largest aircraft cemetery
By passenger traffic or flight movements, Nigeria ranks nowhere near the world’s top aviation countries. But the country has an odd record in the number of unserviceable and dead airplanes competing for space with serviceable ones at airports nationwide. WOLE OYEBADE examines why the mortality rate for airplanes is high without consideration for revenue-earning secondary value. However, stakeholders are unanimous that a complement of realistic business models, better efficiency in maintenance culture, after-service storage programmes, and development of aviation-based tourism and hospitality outlets could change the narrative.
Descending the final approach into Runway-18 Right of Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, the “Lady Bird” could hardly be missed. On the ground, she is as big as a house with imposing elegance that beautifies skylines. But there she has been in the last four years, idle and with love unrequited.
When Arik Air purchased the massive Airbus 340-542 aircraft in 2008, it embossed on it “Our Lady of Perpetual Help” – a moniker to signify a piece of equipment on a mission. It was the talk of the town; the flagship, and the best thing in local aviation for many. It was also a grave error.
Running on fuel-guzzling four engines that were fast becoming old-fashion in commercial aviation, the craft did few Lagos-New York, Lagos –London, and Lagos-Johannesburg trips before calling it a day.
When the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) in 2017 took over the ownership Arik Air and management, the 30-aircraft fleet airline (and the then biggest carrier in West and Central Africa), it met about five aircraft in operations.
Valuers later alleged that majority of the airplanes were “just empty casings,” and on their way to the graveyard, including “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” which had equally become helpless. Very little has changed in the fortunes of the airline since AMCON acquired both assets and liability of over N300b.
Before Arik Air, was Slok Air that was registered in 1996. The airline registered and got approval to bring in two B737-200 aircraft to begin scheduled services. In place of two, four arrived – a violation of extant rules. The airline’s certificate of operation was suspended in March 2004 and the assets rot away.
The airline immediately reopened in the Gambia as Slok Air Gambia Limited in 2004. It recorded several restarts until it grounded operations in 2009. Two of its B737-200 aircraft are still on the ground at the Banjul International Airport, Gambia.
Way back in the 1990s and in the twilight of Nigeria Airways, Okada Air was a household name in international and local passenger scheduled services. The company was disestablished in 1997. To date, its Boeing727 aircraft and 11 BAC-One-Eleven-300 airplanes constitute an “eyesore” at the Benin Airport.
Records at the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) show that more than 50 registered airlines have closed shops in the last three decades, leaving behind a cocktail of derelict airplanes in the manner akin to Arik, Slok and Okada cited above.
It, therefore, came as no surprise to stakeholders when Nigeria was ranked top among countries with the highest number of unserviceable aircraft in global commercial aviation.
Findings by The Guardian showed that the high toll of abandoned or retired aircraft at airports nationwide, without proper storage to suggest a return to service in the future, earned Nigeria the unenviable spot. Besides the misfortunes of the likes of Slok, Okada, Kabo, Chanchangi, and so on in the 90s and their sudden collapse, the current operators’ penchant for the middle-range jet engine aircraft type, which often turns out to be a wrong choice in the long-run, and lack of maintenance facility to support the aircraft locally, are also adding to the number of unserviceable airplanes in the fold.
Experts did not spare the quality of regulatory oversight and wrong business models used by some operating carriers for the waste. They also queried the regulatory body for not, as a policy, insisting on smaller aircraft-type that fits the peculiarity of the Nigerian environment, over the popular middle-range jets that are most ideal for regional operations. Most disturbing is the fact that the country has not developed the modern culture of aviation tourism and hospitality, where decommissioned airplanes and scraps can still yield extra revenue even in their ‘after-life’.
An Oddly Familiar Image Gains Global Attention
CH Aviation, a Swiss-based firm that specialises in data and information gathering for global aviation operators, estimates that Nigeria, with a small aviation industry, now ranks higher than Germany, United Kingdom, Argentina, and Malaysia as the top country with highest number of retired airplanes, in comparison with those in operation.
The 2021 CH Aviation report of 10 countries with the most unserviceable aircraft has Nigeria polling 69.2 per cent. Next is German that recorded 51.2 per cent. Others include the United Kingdom, Argentina, and Malaysia.
Indeed, modern airplanes cost a fortune and are designed to egg on a lifetime. Hence, the global surprise that they unusually age faster in Nigeria and are readily disposed of in prodigal fashion.
Experts are unanimous that an airplane can last for as long as the maintenance requirements and the rising cost are met. Planes operate longer than automobiles, even though it is the older the aircraft, the higher the cost of maintenance. Short-haul aircraft have an average of 25 years. It is 35 years for long-haul aircraft and between 40-50 years for general aviation airplanes.
These days, older long-haul aircraft are retiring earlier as newer aircraft offer lower operating costs, in particular fuel costs, which are very important to long-haul airlines. So, boneyards of the world are getting filled up with 747s and A340s, while airlines are queuing up to buy the latest crafts like B777–300ERs, B777-X, A350, and 787s.
It would be recalled that in 2002, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) placed a ban on BAC-One-Eleven airplanes’ operations in Nigeria, following a series of crashes and serious incidents by the aircraft type. The series was the most popular among operating carriers then. That decision meant a death knell for several airlines and grounding of all BAC airplanes.
Operators that were caught in the web included, ADC, Albarka Air services Limited, Argonaut Airlines, Chanchangi, Chrome Air Services, Comet Airlines, EAS Airlines, Fassey Royal Limited, GAS Airlines, Hold-Trade Air Services, International Air Tours, Nigeria Airways, Oriental, Savannah, Wind, Kabo Air, and Okada. That singular decision by the NCAA formed the genesis of noticeable graveyards in local aviation.
Airport Regional Manager (South West), Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Victoria Shin-Aba, had hinted how some of the inactive aircraft compete for parking space in places like Lagos Airport, to warrant an urgent review of extant bye-laws on parking rights and charges for local operators.
Shin-Aba, during a tour of the facility in 2019, complained how some of the aircraft, though still in service, had been parked for more than five years and got the facility overstretched.
“We are reaching out to the airlines. Not all the aircraft that are on the apron are unserviceable, some are very serviceable. We are talking to them and some are seeing reason and we hope to continue the overture. This is why FAAN is willing to waive payment for them if they agree to take their parked aircraft to airports with less traffic,” she said.
Poor Funding, Wrong Equipment To Blame For The Woes
THE Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, who also registered his displeasure at the CH Aviation report recently, said that poor funding of airlines, poor administration, and inability to carry out costly maintenance as at when due is one of the reasons the country has more airplanes in the graveyard than in the skies.
Sirika stressed that poor funding, which is more or less the norm is responsible for aircraft that are due for maintenance and engine change being on the ground for months without end.
Addressing a gathering of operators recently, he noted that the choice of equipment that is deployed, employment of professionals 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.
“There is no way you (operators) can compete and compare yourself with airlines that are properly kitted with the right type of equipment – talk of aircraft that consumes less fuel, does less maintenance, the cheaper premium on insurance, and quite simpler to operate for the pilot when you do not have the right type of aircraft.
“My 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 an 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. So, please, live aviation happily, with knowledge.”
Regulators, Wrong Business Models As Obstacles
THE deregulated Nigerian commercial aviation industry provides a free entry and free exit for investors. In other words, it allows all comers insofar as they meet the basic requirements. The result of this is a high toll of dropouts.
The local scheduled carriers, of which nine are in operation today, operate more Boeing737 aircraft series that are arguably not the most suitable, or profitable for the Nigerian environment.
According to experts, the Boeing series are middle-range aircraft that do better on regional two-to-four hours flight-cycle. (A cycle is the operation of an engine from take-off to landing). But given the proximity of Nigerian states and comparative low traffic, the maximum flight time is about one hour per cycle.
“But because a second-hand B737 aircraft of 140 seats are far cheaper compared to a 50-seater Embraer jet, some of the operators are buying them. Imagine getting the 737 for less than $2m. It looks like a good bargain. But when it is due for C-check about 18-month later, you will get a bill of $3m, which is more expensive than the purchase cost. At that point, some operators will rather go for another aircraft than repair the old one,” a chief operating officer (COO), who prefers anonymity offered.
The former president of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Isaac Balami, affirmed that Nigerian carriers have been using 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, the majority of which are the Boeing series.
“The problem with that is the flight-cycle and maintenance requirement. 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, which is 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.”
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 norms in domestic operations globally.
“First Nation (now defunct) was operating the one-hour Lagos-Abuja flight with Airbus that ordinarily should do an average of four or five-hour flight non-stop. By the time maintenance is due, 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 came on stream 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.”
Balami said further that it was regrettable that the government has not deemed it fit to establish a Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility 60 years after independence.
He said efforts by the private sector to establish the critical facility to support both airlines and the industry have been frustrated by government policies and the refusal of banks to support the venture.
The Chairman of Air Peace, 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.
“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 – 4, 000 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.
An 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 were about 100 aircraft in the 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. Harold Demuren (the 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.
Airplanes And Their Final Resting Place
UNLIKE the Nigerian experience where geriatric airplanes litter airport grounds, they are carefully put away in other climes. That is why graveyards or boneyards are traditionally a part of aviation. Aging aircraft go there either to retire permanently, or for long-term storage and return to service in the future. Since the outbreak of Coronavirus and aviation downtime, many airlines have sent aircraft to these graveyards for retirement, or long-term storage.
There are aircraft graveyards all over the world, with some packed to the brim. Most are located in desert or semi-desert environments. The lack of rain and moisture offers the best conditions for the storage of aircraft, reducing damage and corrosion to the airframe and other aircraft components.
Some of the most popular graveyards include the Mojave Desert in Arizona, the United States, which is home to 4,500 old commercial airliners, pending the determination of their fate. Davis-Monthan, near Tucson, Arizona, also in the United States, is home to the U.S. military’s 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG). Phoenix Goodyear Airport (GYR) once stored over 5, 000 aircraft.
Tarmac Aircraft Boneyard at Teruel Airport, Spain, is the biggest aircraft boneyard in Europe, and it is designed to handle 250 large planes.
When aircraft are no longer wanted, or retired, they are usually taken apart and scrapped off their over 350, 000 individual components for sale. The remains are melted for scrap metal, so nothing is allowed to waste. More advanced options, including keeping the plane fairly intact, and recycle 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.
There are more examples across the globe. A vintage 1965 Boeing 727 airplane lately found a new destination when it was converted into a luxury hotel suite at the Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.
Made from the body of an old 1954 Fairchild C-123, “El Avion” restaurant and bar in Puerto Rico, offers a lot of interesting aviation-related entertainment for visitors. “While having drinks in the cockpit, you can live out your fantasies of becoming a pilot,” the restaurant enthused.
In Florida Waterways, in the United States, is a boat named “The Cosmic Muffin,” made from the front-end of an old Boeing 307 Stratoliner that retired in 1969.
Francie Rehwald of Malibu decided to have an unusual design house whereby the basic building material is parts of Boeing 747. What is interesting is the house roof, which is made of airplane wings, and had to be registered with the FAA for pilots flying overhead to not mistake it for an in-service aircraft.
The Headteacher, Gari Chapidze, bought a retired Yakovlev Yak-42 from Georgian Airways and transformed it into a kindergarten classroom. He renewed the interior of the airplane with educational equipment, games and toys, but he left the cockpit intact so that the children could use it as play tools and pretend to be pilots.
Adding Value, Creating Wealth From Retired Aircraft
A LEADING consultant in African Travel and Tourism, Ikechi Uko, reckoned that there is an abundance of value to sift from disused aircraft, which litter airports, but for want of readiness on the part of authorities.
Uko noted that it is not out of place to use abandoned aircraft in building aviation museums, educational facilities, hotels and restaurants.
“When I did the first Seven Wonders of Nigeria in 2010-2012, I applied to the Ministry of Aviation and FAAN for access to those aircraft to use them for the Aviation Museum. I was invited by FAAN and I was told that if I could take the aircraft outside of the airport vicinity immediately, they would be happy. Their reason was that they had become security threats and they were not thinking about any other thing, but to grind them out of the place.
“If I may quote the man I met: ‘If it is possible to just chew the thing and they just disappear, that is fine.’ So, nobody was interested in harnessing those aircraft for economic prospects. I exclaimed and said we could actually create a successful international aviation museum with what we have in Lagos or even Benin, where we have all the airplanes from Okada Air. But the response was ‘no. We just want to dispose of the aircraft.’ Then, it was lucrative for people to chop-off the aircraft and use the scraps for aluminum. I saw them tear apart an old Nigeria Airways aircraft.
“The point is that the environment has not looked at the economic utilisation of those aircraft. They could be turned into museums, restaurants, used for training purposes, tourism and educational purposes among others. They are just occupying space, and the grass is growing all over them, and I’m sure reptiles now live in them because they are not properly mothballed like those you have in Mojave Desert in America, where the aircraft are well preserved and welcome tourists. So, if they turn it over to people, we could put it to good use and bring revenue to the airport. Where they are, they are useless, constitute an eyesore, and of no value to anybody,” Uko said
Aware that some of the “assets” are subject of knock-down-drag-out litigations, he reasoned that those aircraft are occupying FAAN’s land and have acquired sufficient packing fees over the years, enough for the owners to abandon them as bad debt.
“So, I don’t think anybody else but FAAN owns the aircraft. FAAN can go to court and get a judgment, invoice them and possess all the aircraft. FAAN itself can build an aviation museum. Some of us are available to help them on how to turn those things into economic assets.
“There is no aviation museum in our neighbourhood. If you count the number of children coming to the airport to see aircraft (on excursion), it is huge. Out of the 27 million people in Lagos, how many have entered an aircraft in their life? I flew to Houston and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to see what a Spacecraft looks like. If we turn those places (graveyards) around and shield them from the runway, they can become viable.
“You can create an aviation mentality among children. The value of a museum is not just aesthetics, but also educational. At NASA, they brought people from all manner of schools and did competition among them. That is how to excite the imagination of an American child in space technology. So, there is a lot we can achieve. We can also create restaurants like BAC 100 restaurant, ATR, and B727-classic restaurants. Those are unique things we can do. How many young people in this generation have seen a B727 before?”
A member of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), Olumide Ohunayo, agreed with Uko that there are several secondary options for retired aircraft, which also include, aluminum parts and complimentary furniture purposes to attract people to the industry.
Ohunayo, however, regretted that prolonged litigation procedure had kept the assets in the graveyard longer than normal.
“What we have here is that most of the abandoned aircraft are under litigation with the banks or between the lessor and the lessee. They tend to rot away until when the case is determined. Knowing the judicial process here, it can take donkey years because someone will also appeal the case. That is why you see that those aircraft cannot be touched because of litigation.
“I know two or three old aircraft that are being used for hospitality purposes right now. One is at the beach. The other has to travel by road and outside Lagos for hospitality. Another was used to complete a house. Those are the things people are doing and not that we don’t have an idea of what to do with them. Even the décor are things that can be reused as seats and tables. But that is when the aircraft has been permitted to be decommissioned by the owner and authorities around it,” Ohunayo said.
As of now, Arik’s “Lady Bird” is down, but she needs not be completely out of aviation like the BACs and others before them. Properly packaged, it can find a good resting place and back in the curve exciting the imagination of younger Nigerians to be aviators. She can also tell stories of the fading fame and fortunes of the country’s aviation industry, as well as get stakeholders to learn from past mistakes and avert bad reputation in the global aviation community.