Africa: The Good, Bad and Ugly sides of the Planned Nigerian National Carrier
The federal Government recently announced that the proposed National Carrier will kick-off December 24th this year. Since the declaration, stakeholders in the aviation industry have continued to express their views, highlighting both the bright and dark sides of the project. ANTHONY AWUNOR writes.
When the Minister of States on Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika announced last year, that the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja will be closed for six weeks so as to enable runway repairs, many Nigerians thought the minister was under a spell. The minister closed the airport in March last year, diverting all Abuja flights through Kaduna International Airport; and in exactly six weeks, the Abuja airport was equally reopened to the amazement of all. Similarly, the Federal Government is making another bold effort to commence the full operation of a national carrier in December 24th this year. Nigeria, perceived as the giant of Africa many years ago had a national airline known as Nigeria Airways Ltd.
The company was founded in 1958 after the dissolution of West African Airways Corporation (WAAC). However, in May 2003, when Nigeria Airways had a Boeing 737-200 as its sole serviceable aircraft, the government decided not to pump more money into the overstaffed carrier but to liquidate it completely. Fifteen years down the line, there are very strong indications that another national carrier for Nigeria will commence operations in the last quarter of this year, precisely in December 24. General Manager, Public Affairs of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Mrs. Henrietta Yakubu gave the hint recently in a Facebook post in her page. Beyond that, it was gathered that the information may not be unconnected with a very crucial meeting held last week by the nation’s aviation industry stakeholders with the minister of State on Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika in Abuja.
The meeting which discussed issues bordering on the sector, including the national carrier was attended by Sirika, Permanent Secretary, Transport, Alh. Sabiu Zakari, Directors from the Ministry, Heads of Aviation Parastatals, Director General, Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC), Transaction Advisers, Heads of Aviation Agencies amongst others. Competent sources told LEADERSHIP that the deal has been done and dusted and that Sirika has already set up a 9-man committee to midwife and see that the airline starts operations unfailingly in seven months’ time.
The committee is said to be chaired by veteran aviator, Captain Fola Akinkuotu, who is also the Managing Director of Nigerian Airspace Management Agency. Other members are: Capt. Muhtar Usman, Director General, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority; Capt. Abdulsalami Mohammed, Rector, Nigerian College of Aviation Technology; Engr. Akin Olateru, Commissioner, Accident Investigation Bureau; Capt. Tilmann Gabriel ( a representative of National Carrier Transaction Adviser); Layi Are (a representative of Transaction Adviser for MRO & Aviation Leasing Company); Engr. Chidi Izuwah, the Acting Director General for Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC); Engr. Ben Tukur, Technical Assistant to the Minister of State for Aviation, will serve as the secretary and another industry stakeholder.
It was also gathered that the minister, after the inauguration of the committee gave a charge that they should do everything that has to be done legally and procedurally to make the project a success. The National Carrier Transaction Adviser, made up of a consortium include: Airline Management Group Ltd, Avia Solutions Ltd and Tianerro FZE. Senator Hadi Sirika with the huge plan in mind had earlier presented the Transaction Advisers to the gathering of the country’s aviation stakeholders during the 4th Aviation Stakeholders Forum on 29th March, 2018 in Abuja. Earlier Sirika had assured that government intended to go into alliances or joint ventures with other aircraft manufacturers to increase the reach and number of routes of the national carrier. Sirika is also of the belief that the planned improvement of airport and air navigation infrastructure would support the expected growth from activities of the new carrier.
According to the minister, “the question of national carrier, we all have an agreement that this national carrier can only survive and succeed if it is private sector led and driven. Public Private Partnerships in Nigeria are guided by an act of parliament which is the ICRC Act 2007 that spelt out how to go about doing all these things”. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has also thrown its weight behind the proposed national carrier, confirming that the December target of starting operations is feasible. Backing the minister and the proposed national carrier, Director General of NCAA, Capt Usman Mukhar last week, pointed out that the project is a done deal, assuring that getting an Aircraft Operators Certificate (AOC) takes just 90 days especially when the operator is cooperating with the regulatory authority. Usman therefore, assured that, with that timeline in mind, the possibility of national carrier scaling through is quite feasible within the time-frame.
The DG also stated that, the government has decided to involve the aviation agencies in the task force because they want the national carrier project done very, very well this time around. He said “the presence of the agencies inside the task force is to ensure that the right things are done, they are not midwifing in the real sense of the national carrier but they are guiding the process to ensure that it is done in line with the international standards and best practices in the area of safety, security and also comfort of the passengers”. Usman said several airlines came and left, probably because they did not follow the guide given to them, especially now that the civil aviation authority is there first, to promote aviation activities in Nigeria to ensure safety, security and comfort.
Emphasising further on government readiness and the plans put in place, the NCAA boss added “this time around, government says we should go and ensure that even before take-off that nothing is short circuited, process followed so that they can come to stay, start and stay. The same service we have rendered to every operator that came from the time the operator came at the first phase, coming with the intent that they want to start operating, it is one of the stages in the issuance of the Air Operators Certificate, to the time somebody want to do formal application”. He equally informed that NCAA also guides operators when it comes to documentation and preparations of the manual which they produce, stressing that if there are errors, corrections, NCAA works to see that everything comes out clean.
“All these we did with all of them to the time they come and demonstrate that they are able to do this and then finally we certify them, we have been doing this, so it is not unusual that you find us in that Task Force”, Usman noted. He stated that they extend these services to all the operators because they came through the five stages of obtaining an AOC, adding that it is the same process, to all the operators and that there is no special treatment given to any operator. He however, said that for the national carrier, the government wants to make sure that it is done properly, and also more active his time around. The captain said as far as NCAA is the December target is feasible because the process of obtaining the AOC, the permit and so can take a minimum of 90 days even average people do it is 6 months.
He pointed out that those who spend up to 6 months are the operations that have issues because before you move from one stage to another, you must satisfy all the necessary requirements. That is why sometimes the delay is not on the part of the Authority but on the part of the operators. If the operator everything is fine, fine from the operator within 90 days we will be able to give them the certificate to operate. We don’t control other things but as far as we are concerned from our own side it is quite feasible”, Usman said. . He further added that, although government has put in place a transaction adviser which comprises a consortium of advisers, NCAA will continue to guide them just as the agency has guided other operators to ensure that these things are done properly. Despite the efforts of the minister, key industry players have condemned his moves, saying that the national career plan is a white elephant project. Arising from its meeting of Airline CEOs recently, members of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) condemned the proposal, saying that they are at a loss as to the relevance and need of a National Carrier at this point in time in the history of the nation. AON which spoke through its Chairman, Captain Nogie Megisson, pointed out that while they are not averse to the government providing a conducive operating business environment and a level playing field for the establishment of a private sector driven flag carrier, the idea of using tax payers money to float a “National Carrier” in 2018 is not only counterproductive, but inimical to the overall interests of the present corps of private entrepreneurs.
The operators added that, in the overall scheme of things, “National Carrier” can only result in a huge distortion to the current market and will be a huge drainpipe to government’s treasury. “In this regard therefore, we urge the Federal Government to provide clarity on the Agenda whether it’s for job creation or for profit as well as steps being taken in the establishment of this “National Carrier”, especially when viewed against the background that the Honourable Minister of State Aviation has indicated that this airline will commence operations on December 24, 2018. Moreover, this model is no longer practicable worldwide as in the 70s 80 percent of the airlines in Europe were government owned airlines. Today 98 percent of the airlines have been privatized”, AON noted.
In their submission, aviation industry think-tank, the Aviation Roundtable (ART) in an official statement issued recently pointed out that as the federal government works towards the establishment of a new national airline, a level playing field should be provided for all players in Nigeria’s aviation industry to thrive. The group gave the warning in a communique issued at the end of Aviation Round Table (Art) quarterly business breakfast meeting held on Thursday, June 14, 2018 at Golfview Hotel & Suites, GRA, Ikeja, Lagos with the theme: “Evaluation Of Safety & Security Performance Of Aviation Agencies In The Last Four Years” According to the group, an ideal national carrier must be domestically registered with support and encouragement of the citizens through the objective actions of government irrespective of party affiliation.
ART, in the document signed by one of the senior members, Mr. Olumide Ohunayo stated that they are not in sync with the committee made up of Government agency heads to midwife the process of setting up the proposed National Carrier. “We as professionals in the industry are advising a cautious approach to this project. The probability of the directed committee’s emotional influence on the finished product is not very encouraging”, the group stated. The aviation group further pointed out that they would perhaps encourage, not just a minimal involvement of Government in the process but also her restriction to establishing a level playing field for the Nigerian public’s participation as investors. “If and when as expected, this process goes ahead towards the finish line, it would be helpful to consider the employment of reputable head hunters in the nomination of even the startup management team as “management challenges” played a prominent role in the demise of previous failed attempts.
It is also noted that the concurrent missteps of participation in the past, contributed to make such projects a mirage”, they stated. They said, ART expects government to carefully and transparently work out the involvement of operating local airlines that may be seriously considered, adding that it’s position is patriotic and so geared toward avoiding the possible colossal and usual loss of both revenue and man hours from our commonwealth as experienced with the past unguided attempts. The general secretary of the Association of Nigerian Aviation Professionals (ANAP), Comrade Abdulrasaq Saidu has doubted the feasibility of the proposed national carrier commencing operation in December this year Kicking against the plan, Comrade Saidu emphasized that it was an exercise in futility as the government has failed in explaining to Nigerians what happened to the proceeds of the sale of Nigeria Airways and the government’s inability to settle workers of the liquidated airline.
“They are playing politics, to form a national carrier is not one day. You need technical partner, are they going to take over Arik Air. They cheaply sold Nigeria Airways which we don’t know how much it was sold for and you want to float a national carrier. The airline was wrongly liquidated”. Saidu said it will be difficult to float a national carrier without settling the workers of the defunct Nigeria Airways, lamenting that most of them have died.” National Carrier cannot be ready in December and I challenge them. Nothing is working in the aviation industry today” He blamed politicians for killing the aviation industry in the country through their unfavorable policies just as he pointed out that Nigeria Airways was wrongly liquidated after being indebted to it by the government.
Saidu blamed the two aviation Committees of the National Assembly for not asking questions on the liquidation of the airline. “I challenge them to come out with the airline and let us see how they will run it. They are chasing shadow without paying Nigeria Airways workers. First, they can’t succeed without telling us how Nigeria Airways was sold” The ANAP scribe equally urged President Buhari to beam his searchlights on the aviation sector saying that most of the people in charge of the agencies have turned to contractors. Similarly, the National Union of Pensioners (NUP) FAAN branch has equally dismissed the proposed take off of the National carrier in December, saying there was nothing on ground to show the seriousness of the minister in floating an airline The Chairman and secretary of NUP FAAN branch respectively, comrades Rasaki Ope and Emeka Njoku said that it was a welcome development when it was announced some time ago that a national carrier will be lunched but note it was coming late.
The duo however, noted that that there was no sign to show that an airline will be established, stressing that “national carrier is not a motor park issue, it’s not something you just bring an aircraft and start flying, they need personnel to be trained. December is at hand but there is nothing on ground to suggest that national carrier is coming up” They argued that the issue of the ex-Nigeria Airways staff must be settled before floating another airline. They called on unions in the aviation industry to wake up to their responsibility by asking questions on the structure of the airline to come on board whether it will be run on government, private sector driven or to be enlisted in stock market.