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Stakeholders in the aviation sector set agenda for Osita Chidoka, new Aviation Minister on the areas he ought to accord priority in order to religiously implement the Aviation sector master plan and maintain international standards

By Pita Ochai

Osita Benjamin Chidoka, former Corps Marshall of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) was called to serve the country in a higher capacity on July 23 when he was appointed the Minister of Aviation by President Goodluck Jonathan. He succeeds Princess Stella Oduah, the immediate past Aviation Minister, who was removed under a controversial car purchase scandal involving the ministry five months ago. Since the removal of Oduah, Samuel Ortom, Minister for State Industry, Trade and Investment had been acting as the Supervising Minister of Aviation. Therefore, shortly after Chidoka was sworn in as minister, a handing over ceremony was held at the ministry’s headquarter in Abuja during which he formally took over from Ortom.

In his brief remarks at the event, Chidoka said that safety on air and security of the infrastructure in the airports are the two areas he would accord priority. He pledged his commitment to work assiduously to bring transformation to the aviation industry in order to justify the government’s huge investments in the sector which he described as vital to the nation. He promised to synergize with the Permanent Secretary and all the staff towards tackling the challenges facing the aviation sector. Chidoka paid tribute to Oduah for the innovation she brought to the aviation sector and promised to improve on her efforts. “We are not going to do anything different, but we will build on what already exists in line with the aviation master plan. We will measure where we are, and take further step from there. I hope we will have a fruitful working experience and, most importantly, deliver service to Nigerians. Our main job is to aid the parastatals to do their jobs. We are not going to interfere with their jobs, but we shall monitor, supervise and improve,” he said.

Although many stakeholders in the aviation sector would have preferred to have a technocrat or an aviation expert as the new minister, they have accepted the appointment of Chidoka in good faith since the former FRSC boss has a good knowledge of safety even though it had to do with road and not air transport.

Stakeholders’ agenda for Chidoka

As the minister settles down to begin the task of bringing the aviation sector back on track, some stakeholders in the industry have identified the areas he ought to accord priority in order to ensure zero-accident rate in the Nigerian airspace. Benjamin Okewu, the National President, Air Traffic Services Senior Staff Association (ATSSSAN), said that one of the areas the minister should focus on is supporting the domestic airlines that are struggling to survive and then give premium to the safety and security of infrastructure instead of building terminals. He urged Chidoka to ensure that domestic airlines survive because without their existence, there would not be any need for airports, adding that it would also mean the collapse of the industry. Okewu informed the minister that domestic airlines in the country play a major role in aviation industry, and their continuous existence means a lot to the sector in particular and the Nigerian economy in general. “The new minister must ensure the survival of Aero and other domestic airlines in the country. He should also call a meeting of stakeholders in the industry and solicit their continued support,” he said.

The Chief Executive Officer of Centurion Securities, Group Capt John Ojikutu (rtd), urged the minister to focus his attention on the safety of critical infrastructure such as perimeter and security fences, runways, approach lighting, navigational aids and aeronautical information service. Other areas which the security expert said the minister should accord priority is communication, fire, search and rescue equipment, fire personnel training, Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) training and the training of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) inspectors. Ojikutu advised the minister to pay less attention to the construction or remodelling of airport terminals, which according to him, should be handled by private investors. “There is no need to waste public funds on terminal buildings, which are mere shopping malls. Private investors can do that better,” he said, adding that private investors can handle such projects through the model of Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT), the way Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited (BASL) constructed the Murtala Muhammed Airport Terminal 2 (MMA2) in Lagos.

He also urged Chidoka to look critically at the Bilateral Service Agreement (BASA) which, according to him, has been allegedly tilted by aviation ministry officials to benefit foreign airlines to the detriment of Nigeria’s. Ojikutu added that the abolition of royalties and commercial agreement by ministry officials is depriving Nigeria of revenue of over $200 million that would have been paid by foreign airlines. He lamented that some foreign airlines that are benefiting more from BASA were also given multiple entries into the country thereby depriving domestic airlines of the local market.

The Head of Strategy, Zenith Travel, Olumide Ohunayo, tasked the minister to ensure that Nigeria retains the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Category 1 status the country achieved in 2010 after a mandatory exercise carried out on Nigeria’s aviation. “I think he should facilitate the retention of CAT 1 by ensuring the gaps and windows be closed quickly and appropriately,” he said.

Ohunayo also advised Chidoka not to start new projects since he has barely 10 months before May 2015 when the four-year tenure of President Jonathan will elapse. “He should rather consolidate by reviewing the debts and overhead cost that shut up astronomically in the last three years,” he said.

The management of Aeroconsult, an aviation training and consulting outfit, advised the minister to be pro-active in his approach toward the administration of the civil aviation industry. Babatunde Obadofin, the group chief executive urged Chidoka to free himself from politicking as the industry is a highly technical sphere that is expected to maintain international standards.

Captain Dele Ore, president, Aviation Round Table (ART), while congratulating the minister noted that he has an uphill task in his hand, but that the task could be made much easier if he does what his conscience tells him. “Because he doesn’t have so much time so he should not try to reinvent the wheel of this industry by the so-called reorganisation which normally comes when there is a new minister, he should not try to bring in his own but work with what is on ground.”

Ore advised Chidoka to revisit the National Civil Aviation Policy because what operates currently is a bastardised version. He also wants the minister to ensure that the number of domestic carriers increase, not dying sudden death which has been the case in the last two years. He equally wants Chidoka to address high cost of aviation fuel which had impacted negatively on domestic airlines. “There is need for a Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility here in Nigeria – a situation where airlines cannot carry aircraft maintenance locally entails a lot of money which jerks up the airlines’ cost of operations astronomically,” Ore said.

He frowned at the situation where the country has local professionals to be employed in the industry, yet there are more expatriates in the airlines’ workforce, including the pilots.  He urged Chidoka to ensure that before new airlines are given permit, there should be an agreement of employment; for one expatriate, three Nigerians should be trained to take up the job.

Ore submitted that the Lagos Airport cannot truly become a hub until Nigeria has dominant flag carriers and urged Chidoka to work towards making the country have dominant flag carriers. “I believe if he tackles manpower development, maintenance, aviation fuel, and others as mentioned, the industry can be better; so he should look into all these areas,” Ore said.

Critical issues begging for attention

There are other issues the minister will have to contend with considering the fact that the sector is safety-driven. First on the agenda is the Nnamdi Azikwe Airport (NAA), Abuja second runway. This critical project has been on the ground for years but the Federal Government has been dilly-dallying with it. On December 4, 2013, a Saudi Air cargo aircraft B747 marked K74798 veered off the runway thereby blocking runway 04, the only runway in the airport, and this led to the closure of the airport to flight operations. This affected both domestic and international airlines, as they had to either cancel   or reschedule their flights. From July 5 to July 7 this year, FAAN closed the only runway for maintenance. This no doubt caused passengers and airlines some discomfort. The issue of building a second runway at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport Abuja was discussed sometimes ago but the idea was dropped when the federal government discovered that the contract for the construction of the runway that was awarded to construction giant; Julius Berger was allegedly over inflated.  Chidoka is expected to revisit this issue. Though the president was quoted to have said that he would give the project a priority, the new minister must begin the move.

Certification of airports by NCAA

One development that is not good for Nigerian airports is the non-certification of any of the 22 airports in the country. Even the gateway airport; Lagos Airport has not been certified by the NCAA. The reason for this is that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), manager of these airports has not met the conditions that would warrant certifying them. Chidoka is expected to look into this by ensuring that FAAN does the right thing.

Lagos Airport Close Circuit Television (CCTV)

As a matter of urgency, the minister should find out why the Close Circuit Television (CCTV) project at the airport, especially those at the Access Road are not working and must be made to function. If the CCTVs at the gateway airport are not functioning after billions of naira have been spent on them, there is no way there would be adequate security at the airports.

Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT)

The college as it is today needs attention of the Federal Government in the areas of funding, provision of facilities so as to be able to increase its admission capacity.  It is when the college is well funded that it can address the manpower need of the aviation industry.

No doubt, all eyes are on Chidoka to see how he would reposition the aviation sector.  Although he is not an aviation professional or a technocrat, what seems to be going for him is that he is young, energetic and vibrant. Beside, some stakeholders have said that if he has passion for his new job and is ready to learn, he would record tangible achievements within a short period of time.

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