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Stakeholders in the Nigerian aviation industry renew the clamour for the re-establishment of a national carrier in order to transform the country into a global aviation hub.

By Chris Ajaero

For sometime now, there has been renewed clamour by stakeholders in the Nigerian aviation industry for the re-establishment of a national carrier for the country.  To them, the re-establishment of a national carrier will correct the imbalance in the bilateral air services agreements Nigeria signed with some countries and transform the country into a global aviation hub. However, there are others who believe that rather than set up a national carrier, the government should encourage the designated flag carriers to compete with foreign carriers.

Before the appointment of Mr. Osita Chidoka as the new minister of aviation, Dr Samuel Ortom, former Supervising Minister of Aviation, had said there was no going back on the formation of a national carrier. He said the government was discussing with some Chinese investors to set up a carrier. He promised that the government would create a conducive environment for investors, insisting that the government was ready to work with them to float the carrier.

Attempts by the government to establish a carrier in the past ran into murky waters because it favoured a certain domestic carrier over others. In 2013, attempts by the government to convert indigenous carrier, Aero Contractors, into a national carrier by taking up majority equity in the cash strapped airline failed to sail through as the major proponent of the deal (Stella Oduah, former Aviation Minister) later got immersed in a scandal that eventually led to her removal from office.

However, the fulcrum of air transport development is built on a national carrier, which could be private sector-driven or fully owned by the government, like Africa’s most profitable airline, Ethiopian Airlines. Nigeria lost its bearing and prime position in the sector when it liquidated the Nigerian Airways Limited (NAL) 11 years ago. Manpower development, dominance of a country’s lucrative routes and commercial air service agreements revolve around a national carrier or flag carrier that has the full backing of the government.

Experts say Nigeria loses over N400 billion yearly to foreign airlines and expatriate manpower since the NAL was liquidated. Its liquidation has impacted negatively on the training of   pilots and other aviation personnel. Moreover, NAL’s lucrative routes have been taken over by foreign airlines, which easily get frequencies from the government. This is why many stakeholders believe there was urgent need for the formation of a national carrier. Mr. Chris Aligbe, Aviation industry consultant and chief executive officer of Belujane Konsult said that the formation of a national carrier at this time is a necessity to help Nigeria regain its footing in the aviation sector.  “The fact that Nigeria does not have her own national carrier is actually a disgrace to us as a nation and the largest economy in Africa. It takes something out of our pride,” he said.

Aligbe explained that unless Nigeria establishes a national carrier, the country will not have a voice in the aviation sector   and the airlines will do whatever they want to do with Nigerians in terms of fares. “No matter what we develop, be it airport infrastructure, we won’t derive the right benefits. Today, is there any Nigerian hub?  Nigeria is so well located to be a hub, everybody acknowledges it. Nigerians are itinerant people, they move around doing business, we have the population, the market, and the geographical location to be the number one hub in Africa. But without our own airline we can never be one,” Aligbe said.

He noted that the reality is that all over the world, where ever there is a hub, it is the national carrier that drives it, adding that no foreign airline can develop a hub for Nigeria. He said: “If we don’t have a national carrier, let us forget the issue of hub; let us forget the issue being in existence in the global aviation industry. Let Nigerians be prepared to take whatever fare they get from foreign airlines, let them not complain. You cannot eat your cake and have it, Kenyans are not complaining today because they have their national carrier. Likewise, South Africans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Moroccans and Tunisians are not complaining.”

Comrade Benjamin Okewu, president of the Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSAN) said that the re-establishment of a national carrier would aid the growth and development of the sector and Nigeria as a whole. He noted that Nigeria has lost huge amount of money through the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA), because there were no national carriers that fly major routes out of the country. According to him, other foreign airlines have taken the advantage of the absence of a national carrier to exploit the country’s aviation sector. He advised the government to discard the idea of forming a national carrier from existing airlines, but to come up with a new airline entirely. “Without our airlines flying into other countries from Nigeria, we are losing a lot of money; there is need for a new national carrier. The government should stop thinking of forming a national carrier from the existing airlines. We need a new airline not from the existing fleets.”

Dr. Steve Mahonwu, former Chairman, Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) said the plan by the government to re-establish a national carrier would create jobs. “Whatever method the government wants to formulate to bring about the re-establishment of a national carrier for the country, we should give it the support. We should allow national interest to take overriding position. The government said it would involve private investors.” Mahonwu said. He was emphatic that until the country get a national carrier, the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, would not become a hub.

Justice Ibrahim Auta, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Abuja has also joined in the clamour for the re-establishment of a national carrier. According to him, it would assist to earn foreign exchange for the country as well as promote national pride. He said the setting up of a national carrier could not have come at a better time, when other countries in Africa have carriers that could compete with foreign airlines in African routes. Justice Auta urged the government to accelerate the process leading to the re-establishment of a national carrier, describing the industry as a gold mine that should be developed to enable it earn huge foreign exchange for the country. He said until the government repositions the sector by putting in place a national carrier, the huge capital flight would continue. His words: “The aviation industry in Nigeria is a gold mine. But, it has not been fully exploited; the government needs to develop it by setting up a national carrier. The government must put its acts together to work towards setting up a national carrier, which is not only good for our national pride but, would also earn huge foreign exchange for the country. The aviation industry could contribute significantly to the economy if government develops the aviation sector.”

Nick Fadugba, former Secretary-General of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) said that “ideally, in 2003, the government should have privatised the loss-making national carrier, Nigeria Airways, rather than liquidate it.” According to him, the Kenyan government followed this strategy and Kenya Airways is now one of the leading airlines in Africa. “But what is certain is that Nigeria needs a national carrier or empowered flag carrier to get back to reckoning in the African and world market,” Fadugba said.

Indeed, Nigeria’s inability to establish and operate a functional national carrier, more than two years after she launched a master plan to resuscitate the project, is creating ripples in the global aviation industry. Although an estimated $1.5 billion (about N234 billion) may have been attracted to the sector following the launch of the reforms early 2012, much of the benefits of this investment may be eluding Nigeria due to the absence of a national carrier.

This fund, spread in various investments across the aviation industry, has resulted in improved infrastructure in line with international standards in the airports, navigational and regulatory facilities and even the manpower capacity has equally been upped to global standards. Yakubu Dati, spokesperson for the aviation sector parastatals said that “Nigeria is now the beautiful bride of international investors as our airports have been made more viable.”  He, however, said that the non-availability of a national carrier since the liquidation of erstwhile carrier, Nigeria Airways, to reciprocate the many bilateral air agreements (BASA) signed by the Nigerian government with other countries, is now drain on  the nation’s economy.

Experts  believe that apart from the huge revenue a national carrier would have generated, it would equally have  created over 200,000 direct and indirect jobs and positively impacted on the gross domestic product (GDP). Captain Noggie Megison, President of the Nigeria Professional Pilots, also lamented that over 200 qualified Nigerian pilots are without employment, a situation he linked to the absence of a national carrier to engage them.  He, however, cautioned that bringing a fleet of aircraft for the national carrier without groundwork would spell doom for the country, because for Nigeria to establish a national carrier, it should have a comprehensive maintenance facility.  According to him, it would be difficult for any airline that has more than five aircraft in its fleet to survive without local maintenance facility. “So the new minister should lay the needed groundwork towards establishing a national carrier by facilitating the establishment of an MRO (maintenance hangar) in Nigeria,” he said.

However, while many stakeholders are clamouring for the re-establishment of a national carrier, Captain Dele Ore, president, Aviation Round Table (ART) said that he does not believe in a national carrier but the creation of dominant flag carriers. “We cannot have a hub until we have dominant flag carriers. I do not believe in a national carrier, but several flag carriers. Chidoka should look into this,” Captain Ore said.

Chidoka mulls state of underground tunnel

The Minister of Aviation, Mr. Osita Chidoka recently expressed displeasure over the dilapidated state and environmental threat posed by the abandoned underground facilities at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos.

The minister who was on a facility tour of the Lagos Airport facilities said the abandonment of the underground facilities, which formerly housed   the disused Control Center of the Close Circuit Television (CCTV) that monitored movements around all sensitive and sterile areas of the airport complex, the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and car park for airport users was a disgrace to the nation.

It was the first time a Minister of Aviation will be inspecting the underground tunnel in the past 14 years. He was shocked at the unkempt nature of the underground facilities and ordered the airport’s management to give the underground facilities a facelift.

Chidoka also insisted on inspecting the car park, which is also underground at the terminal, suspecting that it would be flooded, and the Acting Airport Manager, South-West, Engr. Noah Sanya told the minister it was flooded. The minister said: “This thing I am seeing is not good for the image of the country. Look at the facility here, it is flooded. I believe we were not supposed to see this, but we have seen it.”

Chidoka also queried why the arriving passengers at the airport were denied the usage of the arrival drop zone, stressing that the action of the Authority further inconveniences passengers at the airport. He noted that if departing passengers could be allowed unrestrained access to the terminal’s drop off zone with their vehicles, he wondered why the same gesture could not be extended to the arriving passengers. “You go and put some old buses at the parking area and tell people to board them to the airside. I want to say it here now that you should remove the barrier here, which disallowed arriving passengers from being picked up by their relatives and allow passengers to have access to this place. You can put speed bumps here, which will reduce high speed,” he said.


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