…….flag-off national carrier
In this interview, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Aviation, Sen. Hadi Sirika expresses how the journey in spearheading the country’s aviation industry in the last one year has been. He also give what 2017 will look like with the anticipated closure of Abuja airport runway, concession of airports and other projects. Excerpt:
One year in the industry
The last one year has been quite challenging for me in the industry. This is the industry where someone has average knowledge of what is going on and has a clear set target thinking that something achievable within a very short time. But of course, the level of decay has not been anticipated. On getting there without making excuses, we found out the challenge is huge. The industry has decayed almost beyond repair. The facilities at the airports that will enhance safety and security and facilitation of passengers have been totally brought down with no new investment. If you look at our industry at the moment, once there is inclement weather, especially that of fog, ordinary fog that will reduce visibility, you still cannot fly aero planes around Nigeria. That is sad, because the level that aviation has reached in the world is such that you can actually carry out zero-zero landing, meaning that with zero visibility seeing nothing, you can still shoot on approach into the airport, land safely and take-off safely. The case is not so in Nigeria. This requires funding. This is one challenge.
Also one has found out that the agencies and parastatals within the industry have become such a burden that it is very difficult to operate them. Some of them are not operating or nearly all of them are not operating according to the act that established them or according to ICAO Standard and Recommended Practices. There was an urgent need to reposition them to ensure that they comply with Act and also to comply with ICAO Standard and Recommended Practices . Some of them are bogus, over-staff, inefficient and the only way was to begin the process of reorganizing and restructuring them for efficiency and better service delivery. Some of the airlines operating within the industry are having difficulties, inclusive of financial difficulties. They find it very difficult to operate and most of them are at the verge of collapsing. Some of them have already collapsed at the time we took over and the situation has not changed. They are finding it very difficult to operate. So also, absence of efficient and robust airline that is Nigeria based had forced other international airlines to take advantage of us and do whatever they like. Of course comes the non-availability of foreign exchange, knowing fully-well that aviation is Foreign Exchange dependent. You buy aero planes in foreign exchange, you buy spares in foreign exchange, you maintain aeroplane in foreign exchange, you conduct training of crew and so on in foreign exchange. And even fuel you buy often times in foreign exchange. It is an industry that is dependent on foreign exchange and foreign exchange was not available at the time. So that became a huge and major challenge for us in the industry. The way and manner we get out the jet A1 is also another challenge tied to the absence of foreign exchange.
Little wonder if you see some of the airlines are not able to operate. Passengers who had hitherto thought they will travel and bought their tickets get to the airport and stayed for 12 hours, 15 hours; some cases I heard some stayed for 19 hours at the airports trying to travel and they could have done so by road. This one year has been rough and tough.It did not go out without any good news. On the whole, it has been a year that has been very challenging.
The challenge of availability of funds, aviation of course is not the only focus of the government. There have been other very critical sectors like education, healthcare and so on that needed more attention. The money available for government for all of us is very small and limited. Therefore, funds available for aviation is very small and limited. We could not do better than what is available to us. Sometimes, little thing that you think can be done, you find out that you cannot do them. What you took for granted became a big issue. To calibrate our airports became a problem. We have to rely on foreign company like ASECNA to come and do it. At some point, I had to chase ASECNA in Montreal to plead with them to come and calibrate our airports so we could pass ICAO Audit. That is very demeaning from my perspective and it was not really good for us. Of course we do not want to envisage that they cannot come because they are already engaged and the plane due for service. It took a lot talking, persuasion and visitation for them to accept to come and do it for us and they did and went away. One would have thought that Nigeria has advanced to the level we can carry out calibration of our equipment without any recourse to minor countries. It proofs to be a challenge as well. It is just to highlight brief of the challenges when we came in.
No fatality in 2016.
We give glory to Almighty Allah for making it happened that way. We do know for fact that we are conscious of Standard Aviation procedures and recommended practices. The way aviation industry is run in this country, we try to ensure that it is according to conventional and normal practices and recommendation of ICAO. And also our local civil aviation authority. We try as much as possible to ensure that every bit of the industry has complied with the provisions of those entities. We also try to reeducate the entrepreneurs in the aviation to understand that aviation business is a risky business and that involves the lives of innocent people, so they must take it seriously. These I think have contributed immensely to ensure safety increase and upped from where we met it. We have also been linking and attending conferences and seminars, we have been inviting people to come and speak with us. We have carried out various stakeholders meeting and all of these are geared towards improving safety and security of the industry.
Abuja runway and 18Left in Lagos?
This is a different ball game altogether. 18 Left in Lagos at the time went through conventional and normal process of procurement . This is an emergency situation, it is abnormal situation. So, it is going to be treated in abnormal manner; in the sense that all the necessary approval has been secured, all the bureaucratic bottlenecks have been eliminated from the process of this procurement. They are two different sets of procurement. This will be very different. There is no way it will start and stop. It will start, it will finish on time. Whatever timeline that has be given , we will not add a single day.
ICAO Air Services Negotiation conference in Bahamas
The essence of the conference in Bahamas was for negotiating air service agreement, rather than travelling from one country to another negotiating and renegotiating of air services agreement where countries are many. 150 countries went to Bahamas to negotiate between themselves, agreed and signed some of the bilateral services agreement and some to review them. The one we signed while we were there was between us and Turkey. We signed with Turkey and we have reviewed several of them inclusive of that between us and United Kingdom. We negotiated with about 16 countries. It offered us a huge opportunity for us to be able to cut down number of foreign trips just for these purposes. ICAO in their wisdom decide to select one-stop shop where everybody can come and sign whatever they want to sign and go. We took advantage of that and I am glad that we went there. It was fruitful and also worthwhile.
Direction in 2017
There are quite a number of project that we will do in 2017. I want to say this is the year we will flag-off the national carrier itself. This is also the year we will go into the concession of our Four airports. This is also the year we will complete the transforming of Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, Zaria into an ICAO Center of Excellence. I am sure it is the same year all our aviation agencies will be streamlined and follow the Act that establishing them. This is also the year that Nigerian Civil Aviation Act will be reviewed and approved hopefully as new set of laws guiding our operations. I know also that this year by God’s grace we will receive quite number of our personnel that have gone on training to enrich themselves. I will like to say that we will like to commence if we can hopefully this year begin the exportation of agricultural produce, especially perishable items through air transportation. All of these are lined up to happen this year and many more. There will be a stakeholders meeting on Thursday to discuss the closure of runway in Abuja and our preparedness towards it.
Africa Open Skies
My take is that Yamoussoukro Decision is sacrosanct. It is what we need to transform our industry. It is exactly what has helped the European countries to develop the aviation community. Nigeria will not be left behind. We will take advantage of it. We are for it. Then we are also for Open Skies even though it may look at the moment to our disadvantage when you look at Ethiopia with Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya with Kenya Airways, South Africa with South African Airways, Morocco with Air Maroc and so on. There are airlines and there are many aircraft going from one place to another, it is not the case withr Nigeria unfortunately. But regardless, I think it will give us advantage and very soon when we establish our own National carrier, it will seem that we are going to be a major beneficiary. You cannot kill Nigeria market, 180 million people, 22 airports serving all nooks and crannies of the country, produce all kinds of perishable items that need to be exported; the future is bright.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (Drone)
It will also be this year. We already have the policy in place.
Assistance from government.
I do know for fact that it is difficult for them to operate. I am not sure if government on its own initiate those support services, but any airline that will come forward with request and we feel that the request is in the interest of the industry , we will be the first to promote that request. Airlines that are operating within the country and domestically owned, we have the moral challenge to help them. Just last week we have taken a decision that most of the airlines that are owing us in dollars which they do not have not that they do not want to give. May be it will be good to take the Naira equivalent. The refineries will start working soon, I think this will augment whatever we are importing to make Jet A1 readily available. These are some of incentives we are putting in place to make sure that the airlines are functioning.
Advice to domestic airlines.
They should think inward. I think they should come together and consolidate. If you ask me,airlines like Medview, Max Air, may be Azman and any other one that look serious. They can group together and form one big carrier which can challenge any big carrier in Africa. On the other hand there is also airlines like Bristow, Pan Africa and so on that are providing helicopter services within the oil and gas sector; it is my feeling that they will do much better and be stronger. Instead of them to collectively do 100 billion, rather than 1 billion individually. It depends how you see it. It is my advice for them to come together to consolidate. It is happening globally, the Star Alliance, One World and so on. These are initiatives just try to take advantage of each other’s strength and weaknesses and produce a better product. If they can come together, I think that will help the industry.
Business Aviation is reacting to the economy of the country. Back in time, there was a lot of money when oil was selling for $140 to a barrel and we were producing 2.2 million barrels a day. So, there was much money as Nigeria was making $300 million daily. We took over, production went down to 800,000 daily from 2.2 million. Also we took over, we met a barrier that for everything you must pay duties. So people that operate private aircraft became a bit apprehensive and jittery. Also they did not have the money to continue to pump in.
One passport and Visa free Africa
I think it is good. It will enhance trade and commerce. It will connect people and connect the businesses and make us one people. It is a stepping stone towards the utopian idea of United States of Africa. I just feel that this must continue. It must be driven from utopian idea to reality. I think this must be achieved. If that is achieved, you can go to Ghana, you can go to South Africa, to Mozambique and Morroco and live there. You will see that it will no longer be anything to live out of your country. People will begin to struggle to make money and bring it back home, which has been helping India economy for example. Also, I believe it is what Nigeria can take advantage of .