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From policy somersaults by successive ministers to undue interference in the activities of regulatory agencies and absence of a roadmap for development, the aviation sector performance between 1999- 2019 is a mixed bag, writes KELVIN OSA-OKUNBOR.

Intrigues. Crises. Controversies. Scandals. And a trajectory of unfulfilled dreams. Those are the best words to describe the last two decades of the aviation industry. The sector has been beset by a myriad of challenges ranging from poor regulatory regimes, rot in airport infrastructure, ageing workforce liquidated national airline,  collapsed private carriers, a spate of air crashes, diverted intervention funds and skewed concession agreements triggering industrial disharmony.

As Nigeria celebrates two decades of unbroken democratic rule come May 29, the aviation sector is yet to consolidate the gains of civilian rule. From failed promises to deliver a national carrier, disgruntled workforce, rising professional unemployment among pilots and aircraft engineers, obsolete airport and air navigation equipment, poorly designed airport upgrade/remodeling projects, abandoned cargo terminals, failed/ poorly capitalised private airlines, absence of aircraft repair centres and controversies  to concession airports , aviation as an industry  has featured prominently in the news.

Besides having the highest number of ministers appointed to superintend over the sector, the harvest of policy somersaults and  high turnout of chief executive officers of agencies, such as the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Nigerian Airspace Management Authority (NAMA), Nigerian  Meteorological Agency (NIMET), Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB), have contributed to the drift in the sector, which many experts continue to describe as a rolling stone that gathers no moss.

In the twenty  years under review the sector has been administered by several ministers, such as the late Olusegun Agagu, Mrs Kema Chikwe, Mallam Isa Yuguda, Late Prof. Borishade, Mr Femi Fani- Kayode, Mr Babatunde Omotoba,  Mrs. Diezani Allison-Madueke, Felix Hassan Hyat; Mrs Fidelia Njeze,  Princess Stella Adaeze Oduah,Chief Samuel Ortom, Mr Osita Chidoka and Captain Hadi Sirika.

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Airline sector

In the period under review, government liquidated the former national carrier; a decision many industry experts including Former President of Aviation Roundtable, Captain Dele Ore considered one of the worst decisions taken by any government.

Besides being the powerhouse of the sector, in terms of training of young pilots and aircraft engineers for the industry, the liquidation of Airways plunged the industry into a round of unemployment as its over 2,000 workers and pensioners were offloaded without their severance benefits. This ugly development threw the industry into a circus of industrial disharmony as the sector harvested series of protests and demonstrations, which claimed some lives as they pushed for the payment of their entitlements.

Between 2004, when the Nigerian Airways was officially wound up, the ghost of the liquidated former national carrier hunted the government till last year when the second tranche of over N22.5 billion was paid to the ex- Airways workers. The final batch of N22.5 billion is yet to be paid by the Buhari administration.

Speaking in an interview, Chairman Aviation Union Grand Alliance (AUGA), Comrade Lookman Animashaun, said the liquidation of the former national carrier remains the defining moment in the sector in the last two decades.

Animashaun said despite reservations about the shutting down of the carrier, the government had laid to rest the ghost of the airline by paying its former workers and pensioners their entitlements fifteen years later.

A spate of air crashes

The last two decades experts say remain a harrowing experience in the sector, as poor regulatory practices, poor safety culture, use of geriatric aircraft and alleged cutting of corners by airline operators culminated in a spate of air crashes.

Between 2000 and 2006 aircraft were falling off the skies. A BAC 1-11 aircraft belonging to EAS Airlines crashed in Kano, a few minutes after it took off from the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport.

In 2005,  the country recorded another crash involving Bellview Airlines in Lisa, in Ogun State, with all passenger killed in a Boeing 737 – 200 which took off a few minutes at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja, Lagos.

The radar at the control tower of the Lagos Airport was said to epileptic at the time of the accident.

A  few months after, a Sosoliso Airlines aircraft crashed on approach to landing at the Port Harcourt Airport. The crashed was attributed to low-level wind shear.

A year later an ADC Airlines aircraft also crashed a few minutes after it took off from the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja.

This, negative developments, which put a question mark of the safety status of Nigerian aviation forced the government to institute series of reforms, resulting in overhaul of regulatory framework for the sector as well as the ban on the use of some aircraft types and the appointment of Dr Harold Olusegun Demuren as Director General of NCAA, to drive the reforms.

The tenure of Demuren as helmsman of the regulatory body engendered drastic reforms in the sector resulting in Nigeria undergoing safety certification, and resultant attainment of United States Federal Aviation Administration US FAA Category One in 2009.

Speaking in an interview, former Secretary General of African Airlines Association ( AFRAA), Mr Nick Fadugba described the role of Demuren in the industry as a necessary intervention to restore public confidence about safety and integrity in civil aviation regulations.

Failed carrier/government failed intervention

In the period under review, the number of domestic carriers plummeted owing largely to inconsistent government policy and unfriendly operating environment.

Besides Nigeria Airways, which was liquidated, other carriers, including Albarka Air Services, Sososoliso Airlines, Fresh Air, Savannah Airlines; Freedom Air Services; Oriental Airlines; Okada Air, Air Mid West, Chanchangi Airlines, Virgin Nigeria Airways; SpaceWorld International Airlines; DASAB Airlines; Discovery Air, Afrijet Airlines, Capital Airlines, Associated Aviation, IRS Airlines;  Bellview Airlines; Falcon Air; Skyline Airlines and many others have ceased to operate.

This era recorded the highest number of carriers that failed compared to the number of carriers that have crisscrossed the Nigerian airspace.

A finance expert, Mohammed Ali Katari, said many carriers failed in Nigeria due to either poor funding; lack of corporate governance and owner-manager syndrome.

Attempt by the government a few years ago to bail some struggling carriers out of the woods through funds injection channelled through the banks did not yield the desired result.

Experts including the Executive Chairman of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Captain Nogie  Meggison said the so-called intervention funds facilitated by the government was designed for the loaning banks to recover their capital and not for the day – to day running of the troubled carriers.

Existing Operators / Challenges

Despite the high attrition rate, a few carriers including Arik Air and AeroContractors are still in business under receivership by the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON). Once strong carriers bestriding the aviation scene, the two carriers are now struggling to have their share of available passenger traffic.

Other carriers still struggling in the sector include Medview Airlines; DANA Air; Overland Airways; AZMAN Air; Max Air and largest operator – Air Peace.

Speaking in an interview, Chairman, Air Peace, Mr Allen Onyema said Nigerian carriers should be commended for keeping the air transport running.

He said the fact that some operators have gabled their opportunity in the last two decades is not enough reasons to categorize operators are not doing the right thing.

Onyema said though aviation business is best with a myriad of challenges, the government needs to create an enabling environment to operators to survive.

One of the ways is to grant approvals for airport land for the building of aircraft maintenance hangars; granting of waivers on aircraft and spares as well protection of indigenous carriers through involvement in international aero politics for carriers designated on intercontinental routes.

Controversial concessions /agreements

In the last two decades, no matter has dominated the headlines as the furore generated by plans by the government to concession some international airports. Though aviation expert, Mr Chris Aligbe said it was the way to go, the government was yet to convince aviation unions and workers about the fidelity of the process that would lead to handing the critical air transport infrastructure to private entities.

National President, Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN), Comrade Ahmadu Illitrus said aviation workers are not comfortable with the way the government was handling issues of airport concession.

Experts said the controversies generated from the concession agreement government signed with Bi- Courtney Aviation Services Limited for the Murtala Muhammed Airport Terminal Two, Lagos remains a disincentive to other investors in the sector, as the tenure of the pact still remains vexed.

They also alluded to the concession FAAN signed with Meavis Nigeria Limited for the Automated Operations Management Systems (AOMS ) for the Lagos International Airport.

Airport remodelling

The period under review would not be complete without examining the scandal that erupted during the tenure of Princess Stella Adaeze as Minister of Aviation, where hundreds of millions of naira were allegedly diverted to purchase Bullet Proof Cars.

Then christened Oduahgate, the controversy propelled former President Goodluck Jonathan to sack her from the cabinet.

Many airports listed under the remodelling scheme have since been abandoned due to paucity of funds.

A few terminals hurriedly completed have been adjudged to be of poor quality.

A former Managing Director of FAAN, Mr George Uriesi recently alleged that the procurement process for the airport remodelling was skewed. He said the terminals were hurriedly put together without following internationally prescribed procedures.

But, many passengers said airports received a major facelift in the last two decades, though they expressed concerns over the quality of materials used for constructing the terminals.

Certification of Airports

In the last two decades government has paid premium attention to scaling up security procedures and processes at the airports to attain certification from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Towards achieving relevant agencies have ramped safety processes by training technical personnel and installing relevant equipment as well as procuring fire tenders at the airports to meet the prescribed standards.

But, industry critic and Chief Executive Officer, Centurion Securities, Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), said the government needs to scale up perimeter and security fencing of airports nationwide.

Besides stemming the tide of incessant stowaways, it will protect the airports against unlawful interference by unauthorized persons.

Though only Lagos and Abuja Airports have been certified, Managing Director, FAAN, Saleh Dunoma said other airports have been scheduled to go through the exercise.

State Airport/ Airlines

To underscore the relevance of airports as a catalyst of business and economic enablers, the country in the last two decades witnessed the construction of airports by some state governments including Delta, Jigawa, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Kebbi, Taraba, Gombe, Osun, Ogun, Anambra and Lagos.

The viability of some of these airports has remained a subject of intense debate among stakeholders.

To cap its efforts, Akwa Ibom State on its part besides, the aircraft repair maintenance centre co-located at its airport in Uyo, also established an airline christened Ibom Air.

Nigeria’s place in the global arena

In the last two decades, some Nigerian including Dr Bernard Olumuyiwa Aliu notched higher in the global; aviation politics as he was elected Council President, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the apex global aviation regulator.

A former director, in the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Aliu has recorded strides in the global body with his safety campaign that no country will be left behind in the drive to scale up aviation. Besides Aliu, the Managing Director, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), was also appointed President, Africa, of the global airports’ regulator; Airports Council International (ACI).

Foreign carriers invasion

In the period under review, a locust of foreign carriers has invaded Nigeria, making it the most lucrative route for many European and the Middle East as well as African carriers.

This has further exposed the failure of many indigenous carriers to live up to their designation on some international routes. Domestic carriers that failed in this respect include now defunct: Bellview Airlines; Okada Air; Virgin Nigeria Airways/ Air Nigeria; ADC Airlines.

Existing carriers that failed to live up to the expectation include  Medview Airlines and  Arik Air.

Sirika’s verdict

Minister of State, Aviation Hadi Sirika said Nigeria did not perform badly its management of aviation in the last few years.

Sirika said though the All Progressive Congress (APC), administration inherited a lot of projects from the previous administration, it has delivered on many fronts.

He said of the government put in place a road map in 2015, which has translated to efforts to establish a national carrier; though the project suffered some setbacks.

Sirika said the government had taken head on the challenge of infrastructure deficit by rebuilding the Abuja Airport runway; reconstruction of Kaduna International Airport; certification of Lagos and Abuja Airports and other achievements.

He said: “This administration inherited 157 projects, out of which we have completed 130. The projects are different stages of completion. We initiated fourteen aviation policies installed facilities at some airports and other interventions we consider work in progress.

“This administration also facilitated the payment of the second tranche of severance benefits to former workers and pensioners of liquidated Nigeria Airways about fourteen years after they were abandoned.  Currently, many international airport terminals are under construction and will tear down the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos for a comprehensive facelift.  This is where we stand.”

Stakeholders’ assessment

Stakeholders say the industry is yet to optimise its full potentials considering the volume of funds injected into the sector to fix critical infrastructure deficit and other challenges besetting the industry.

Besides the road show organised by controversial former Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah to China, the United Kingdom, Canada and other countries, the industry has less to show for such efforts.

Sirika, according to observers, appears long on rhetoric and short in action. He failed to deliver some cardinal projects – national carrier; airports concession, aircraft leasing company, Aviation University and Aircraft Maintenance and Repair Centre (MRO).

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