June 9, 2009

10 years of democracy: Money from BASA will be used for airport infrastructure – Iyal

By Kenneth Ehigiator

Capt. Shehu Usman Iyal is the Senior Special Assistant to the president on Aviation.  In this interview, he x-rays the journey so far in the aviation sector in the 10 years of the nation’s democratic march, especially in the last two years of President Umaru Yar’ Adua’s administration.  He said money realised from Bilateral Air Services Agreements (BASAs) Nigeria has with other countries will be deployed for renewal of airport infrastructure. Excerpts:

Captain Shehu Usman IyalHow will you assess the performance of the aviation sector in the last years of civil governance?
Well aviation in the past ten years , with special reference to the last two years , has taken a leap , not growth forward , in many areas, especially in the area of legislation, we have achieved autonomy for the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority(NCAA), which I think by all standards, is a big plus for Nigeria and Nigerians.

Two, we are able to achieve an independent  and self_accounting  Nigerian Meteorological Agency(NIMET) that reports the weather; we were able to achieve an accident investigation and prevention bureau, which is equally independent, and the agency reports directly to the president , and some level of achievements for agencies and parastatals in the aviation sector that has taken steps further to improve on training and manpower development.  The College of Aviation, Zaria, is now functioning almost at full capacity.

I can say it is at par with all other training colleges across the globe, whether it is Oxford  Air Training  School, and the Flight Safety Academy in America, I can say we have one of the best workshops  for the training of aircraft engineers.   We are not yet there, but we have one of the best training facilities for air traffic controllers.   So, looking at the bedrock, I think we have moved forward from where we were many years ago.

How would you assess the performance of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency(NAMA) in the period under review, viz a vis ongoing projects geared towards improving air safety?
If any agency in the aviation industry has tried in the period under review, I think it is the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency, which has tried in moving forward in the area of acquiring brand new air navigation equipment for their control towers at airports across the country.

If you visit most of the international airports today, the control towers are pretty well equipped, with the good standard that you can see, very acceptable, and they have embarked on training and retraining of their personnel.  Currently, I think they have scores of trainees in the United States of America, to be specific in Florida, who are undergoing training, they need to train more in other European cities, all of this is to make the personnel more competent to operate the new equipment they are acquiring , the latest of which is the total radar coverage of Nigeria (TRACON), which is what  we have been working on in the last 15 years.

We are on the verge of completing it, today the project is almost at 70 per cent completion, Abuja is ready, Lagos is ready, the equipment for the other airports are already on ground, training and retraining is going on.  We have learnt a lesson, with TRACON training is going on, maintenance and training of the personnel, we are seeking maintenance contract with the manufacturers of the equipment, they have gone ahead to draw a maintenance agreement for the next five years for the training and retraining of our people on the use of the equipment.

Should any new technology come up, the company will be responsible to update it, part of the problem we have had with the equipment in NAMA  is that they are obsolete.  To replace them, you have to get special arrangement to get it. I must add that one of the key objectives that is of priority to President Umaru Yar Adua is safety, safety, safety.

In the last Hajj operations, the president mandated us to go round the airport, and if we discover that any airport is not safe, or not good enough, no pilgrims should be lifted from such an airport.  Even if it is only two airports that are safe, we should fly from such airports.

The president has given total support to the total radar coverage of Nigerian airspace , the things that we need to place on record is the installation of low level wind shear equipment at airports across the country, and NAMA and NIMET, are working hard in that area.

What is the government doing about the state of decaying infrastructure in airports across the country, given that the safety of ground_based facilities are a key component of safety?

If you look at the Lagos International Airport at the moment, you will see all the infrastructure upgrade that is going on, a lot has changed, the airport is now working, unlike before when a lot was wrong.  We are not yet there, but a lot of remarkable improvements has been achieved.

Do not forget that FAAN has had issues with some service users not paying for services rendered them, but, a recovery process is on.   Some of the board members are assisting to recover some of the debts, this is part of the problems, with the meagre resources that they have.   They are trying their best, with a little push, the agencies will do much better.  What I know is that if the budgetary approval is secured, between now and the end of the year, you will see a brand new refreshing airport.

What is the government doing to assist FAAN is realising its potentials, in view of the leakages in the system, as it directly affects the internally generated revenue ?

I think I would rather say that FAAN is waking up; FAAN  is aware of some of the problems that it has, like any other developing country, or organisation in Africa, we have some little problems, but having realised the problem, they are waking up to their responsibility, and I believe, a great improvement is on the way in the performance of the authority, which is under way. We have joined FAAN to appeal to their customers to pay for services, and live up to expectation by paying their charges on time.  The authority can identify areas of interest that could boost its revenue profile and improve on it.

There are speculations in the industry that the present administration has not given enough attention to the aviation industry in the seven point agenda.  What is your reaction to this?

That is not true.   president Umaru Yar Adua has put aviation in the front burner of his seven_point agenda.   Recall his recent media interview with a national daily, where he said the administration is geared towards pursuing safety, security in the nation’s airports, especially in the international airports. The vision and instruction is that these airports should be as good as any other airport in the developed parts of the world; the airports should be like what other airports should look like.

With the vision of the president, we should use the Abuja Airport to make a statement, a good international airport that should be showcased to the world.   Imagine how airports in Dubai, London  look like; that is the president’s vision for Abuja Airport. When you come to Abuja, we want the airport to make a statement in terms of facilities, operations, it should be like an airport that is world standard.  That is what the president wants us to actualise in the next 12 months.

How is government assisting the aviation sector with the shocking effects of the global economic melt down?
The administration of Yar Adua  is very concerned about the fortunes of the aviation industry.   A few days ago, the president called myself and the minister of aviation, Babatunde Omotoba, to consider what could be done to assist some of our domestic airlines, like Virgin Nigeria Airways, with a marching order to brief him on what the problems of the airline are, with a view to finding solutions to the problem.  Again , here I want to appeal to our airline operators, to come together as a group, so that they can forge a common front for government to assist them immediately.

Government is willing and ready to assist the operators by creating a very good enabling environment for the operators, by cushioning the effects of the global melt down, so that the industry remains what it should be, like other parts of the world.

Government cares and is willing to assist, and will not allow the industry to die.  Remember last week, there was a bid ceremony here in Abuja, one of the local airlines sealed a deal with a French company, ATR, on how to acquire aircraft for its operations.  Government was part of that deal, it is a signal that government is in support of the aviation industry, and that is enough indication that the government cares, not necessarily in giving cash, but anything the government can do to assist the industry it will do.

How would you assess the oversight functions of the NCAA, given the experiences of the past years when the Nigerian airspace witnessed a plethora of air crashes?

The NCAA, has had a positive outing, with a proactive profile, as things that have never been done in this country are being done.   It has one of the best departments that looks into all such problems, after all those crises, some of the things that have never been done are happening.

You remember the safety conference in Lagos for all stakeholders, the presidential stakeholders conference at the Aso Villa, surgical and radical changes  were introduced in the aviation industry by the NCAA.  There is now autonomy for the regulator as well as independence for the AIB.   Even the release of the intervention fund to address the problems of the industry, that also led to the current bible that we have in the industry today, the Paul Dike Report, and other plans to resuscitate the industry.

Are there plans to modify structures at any of the airports in the country as it is the practice elsewhere in the world?
Yes, there are plans.

I think the minister of aviation and the managing director FAAN have been making cases on that, but beyond that, the immediate plan for the four international airports in Lagos, Kano, Abuja and Port Harcourt, is to look at those airports and study how best to make use of what is available.  You will agree with me that in Lagos, there are certain spaces at the airport that could be better utilised for revenue and expansion.
What is your assessment of the bilateral air services agreement (BASA) government signed with some foreign countries?

The current arrangement has ensured that Nigerian operators are encouraged to travel to any destination they consider lucrative, but government will ensure that there is air link between Nigeria and many countries of the world.  What is important is that the money made from the commercial air agreement is used for the development of infrastructure for the industry. Above all, there is no lopsidedness in the bilateral air services agreement, there has been review, we will do more to protect the interest of our carriers.

That is why some operators, like Arik Air, is going to London, Bellview too, and even other. Arik Air, very soon, is going from Abuja to London, Kabo Air is going to Cairo, Dubai, Jeddah, and will fly other destinations. Government is encouraging our airlines to go places, we are a developing country, we may need more time to catch up in some areas.   That is not unmindful of issues of comparative advantage, but not at the expense of our own citizens.
What is government doing about high operating charges for airlines that operate in the country, as there are speculations that it is the highest in the world?

Yes, when you talk of charges at the airport_navigational charges, parking and landing.  It has been observed that it is cheaper for some of the operators to get fuel from other countries, I think the minister and the ministry is looking into that, with a view to finding out what could be done. Recall that a few years ago, a committee was set up to look into these issues, and the committee submitted a report on what could be done to address the issues, I am convinced the minister of aviation still has the report and is looking into that.  It is part of the issues myself and the minister discussed; the president is quite concerned about it. There is need to look at the issue critically.

What is your take on the funding structure in the aviation sector?
I think the current funding structure from government is adequate, given the fact that a lot of funds have been provided to replace obsolete equipment at airports across the country. Aviation is critical to the current administration’s agenda, so every funding that requires approval has been given to the industry.
What is your view over allegations that the NCAA is not living up to expectation in the economic audit of airlines, especially considering the scenario that some domestic airlines are unable to pay salaries?

Absolutely, it is important for the NCAA to wake up to its responsibility in the area of economic audit of airlines, such that we could have safer airlines.

This is key because, a demoralised personnel could pose a threat to the safety chain .  A staff with low morale is like an accident waiting to happen.  In some of these airlines, there are some issues, but now that they have some cash flow, they have assured the government that everything will be sorted out, the airline has devised a strategy of keeping some of its personnel, and pay salaries as it could, rather than ask them to go.  The NCAA, I can assure you, is concerned about how to resolve the issue, the authority is working hard, it has tried to oversight the industry.

Do not forget it just got autonomy a few years ago. The authority, with time, will build its capacity .  Even the chairman of the board of the NCAA made some statements in the paper, on why the NCAA has to improve the consumer protection unit.   He was vociferous on the necessity of strengthening that arm of the authority, such that it addresses passengers’ complaints .

It is one thing to strengthen the consumer protection unit, it is another thing to get the right personnel to do the work, by giving them proper training.  Even the chairman wants the NCAA to improve on its economic audit of airlines. I am sure in the next few months the NCAA would have improved in that area.

How is government addressing the problem of corruption in the aviation sector?
Corruption is not completely a problem of aviation, it goes beyond the industry, the government has enough agencies like the ICPC, EFCC, the Police and other security agencies to tackle the problem of corruption. It is a collective battle involving everybody.   If we identify any person, we could send an anonymous petition that could lead to unravelling any corrupt practice, it is a collective battle, even the media could play a critical role.  Even in FAAN, we have identified some problems with some personnel, immediately, the minister redeployed them.  I think the government is doing something, and the ministry is doing something to control what it considers controllable.  Above all, it is the total responsibility of all to check corruption.

What is your take on the concept of public private partnership (PPP) in infrastructure provision in the aviation industry?
The president has total support for any attempt by the private sector to promote private sector participation in the provision of infrastructure in the aviation sector. All the airport development that is about to take place, whether you call remodelling, or whatever name, is being encouraged through public private partnership.

All this will give us world class project, we have a very good example in Lagos, the MMA2, which was built by Bi_ Courtney Nigeria Limited.  It is a world class airport, for whatever reason, we must encourage it and support such initiative.   The president is 100 per cent in support of public private partnership, even the other airports that we are yet to mention, we have already received expression of interest by private sector players, it goes to show that Nigeria is becoming recognised.

Only recently, some foreigners from the Middle East have expressed interest in a PPP project in Nigeria; this will bring in another inflow of foreign investment.  This is because they believe us.  Another company from the Far East is also interested in investing in Nigeria, there is also the German_ Nigeria aviation development initiatives, which will see to rapid development of infrastructure in Nigeria.
What is your opinion on the relocation of aviation agencies from Lagos to Abuja?

Opinions in the industry have been sharply divided over this issue, as many informed experts have shared their thoughts on how best the issue could be resolved.  There are quite a number of people in the industry who have spoken on where they should be, and there are quite a lot reasons adduced, as to why the agencies should remain in Lagos, we are all human, and people sometimes are opposed to change, but that is extremely an issue to be handled by the ministry of aviation.  It is not a policy issue, but an executive issue.

What is your reaction to the growing agitation that agencies in the aviation industry should publish their audited accounts for the sake of accountability?
I am not only agreeing; I’m a hundred percent in support of that and I can categorically inform you here that the president has directed that one of the parastatals should immediately make available an audited account of its activities in the last four years, because there is need for Nigeria and Nigerians to know what is going on and what it earns.  What it expended and on what, where the problems or where the benefits are.  This is in line with Mr. President’s transparency and rule of law.  So, it’s a right, not even a privilege.  Every right thinking Nigerian, every Nigerian that believes that we should get out of this problem and move forward  I’m sure will be in total support of all the parastatals, not only aviation, all government parastatals should make available audited accounts.

NIMET had been in the limelight, especially in the area of provision of real time, online weather report, but there had been challenges of the agency not having weather Doppler at airports across the country.  What is government doing to assist the agency in this regard?
Government is doing a lot and very positive.  Already, NIMET  has designed some of the equipment you are talking about.  I recall that a month or a month and half ago, the director general of NIMET and the minister met on the Doppler issue and the NIMET you have today is as good as any NIMET that I think you can have in Africa if not better and you have already seen it.  They give real time, they do pilot briefing and they even go beyond that, they tell you the traveller even on the road, even the farmer, weather forecast. To a large extent, their forecasts are quite reasonably accurate.
What is the relationship between you and the minister?  Is it cordial?
Very cordial and we are a team.

On time maintenance of aircraft is recurring among operators, more so that they are complaining of the huge cost of carrying out maintenance, I don’t know if government is toying with the idea of assisting some private players to perhaps establish a maintenance hangar here in Nigeria?
The way forward is that government is in total support of having a maintenance hangar in Nigeria.  We are indeed aware; the president has even said it’s one of the areas we want to look into.  A lot of money is expended on even crew travelling, estacode, fuelling, positioning and de_positioning of airplanes to either Europe or Addis Ababa in East Africa and sometimes, they even go as far as Saudi Arabia.

So, one of the top priorities when the German new president came, with the MoU that we signed, is to look at the possibilities of having Lufthansa Technik , which is one of the best in the world, to partner with some Nigerian businesses to establish a world standard maintenance centre in Nigeria and that has the blessing of the president, blessing of the minister of aviation and the blessing of all the operators.  It is going to be cheaper for them (operators), it is going to create a lot of job opportunities for Nigerians and it is going to promote assist or enhance or improve transfer of technology because people are going to learn how to do things.  It’s something we are taking very seriously and I can assure you that in the next few months, you are going to hear breaking news on that.
What is the government to resolve this no love lost relation between Arik Air and Bi_Courtney Nigeria Limited, especially as it impinges on its public private partnership (PPP) policy?

The government, and the president is the father of all.  In a family, you can have one or two of your children disagreeing on certain issues, but the important thing is both Bi_Courtney, Arik and any other operator, are very important to us and are very important to the government and I believe whatever they complain is a thing that will soon come to pass.  Even the issue of Virgin Nigeria, the government is concerned and what I can tell you is that Nigeria and Nigerians want

Bi_Courtney to succeed because that is the first successful PPP in this country and is a model that we are proud of.  Nigeria and Nigerians want Arik to succeed, it is the first or number one operator in Africa that has a modern fleet, doing training and training as it is suppose to be.  It is one airline that is using its operations as a model to showcase what Nigeria and Nigerians can do and again it’s a model that does maintenance as it should be done in partnership with LufthansaTechnik.  You see, we need all of them and we must help them grow together.