By AKOMA CHINWEOKE
Volcanic eruption in Iceland recently forced many European nations to close their airspace, leading to several days of travel chaos that left millions of passengers stranded at airports across the world. In Nigeria, thousands of passengers heading to various cities in Europe were equally left stranded while the airlines recorded huge losses running into billions of naira.
In this interview, the assistant general secretary, Airlines Operators of Nigeria, Alhaji Muhammed Tukur, speaks on how the ash cloud almost crippled business activities at the nationâ€™s airports as well as how high charges are killing the local airlines.
Air operatorsÂ have always
complained about high terminal charges by NAMA and other government agencies. Is there any end in sight?
The issue of our problem with terminal charges and NAMA isÂ being resolved.
The aviation minister immediately after her assumption of officeÂ ordered everybody to go back to the status-quo until when she invites us for a meeting.
We held a closed door meeting on the 14th of this month with the minister and the outcome was very good. So, a committee has been set up to look at all the problems relating to the debts that we are owing the Federal Airports Authority, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority and Nigerian Airspace Management Agency. Every operator knows that international flights pay navigational charges. So, if you are holding those pounds and do not pay, I donâ€™t think it is wise. In that meeting, most of our members pledged that they are going to pay their debts and we agreed that they should pay the exact amount they are expected to pay.
This is so because there is no way an operator who fails to pay what he was owing in the international route and the five percent passengers service charge which goes to NCAA which part is given to NAMA for their operation can be said to be working in the interest of the sector.
So, ifÂ we do not pay these debts, we are grounding NAMA completely which I think is wrong. What led to the whole problem was the local charges, by that I mean the navigational charges from Lagos to Abuja and the various parts we fly within our country. So, what we are saying is that you canâ€™t have an air space in Nigeria and say that Nigerians cannot go through the airspace until when they pay the debts.
The Federal Government initially built the highways with toll gates on themÂ but today they have dismantled the toll gatesÂ because that is the only thing people can benefit from government. NAMA was given about N19billon to help improve the navigational equipment in our airports but unfortunately that money was stolen.
Now that the same amount has been given to NAMA and they have installed the equipment to fix the airports,Â we have no objection if we are going to make another contribution but we have to look at it critically. Airline operators are dying and more than 13 airlines is already gone due to unnecessary charges.
So,Â we are appealing to the Federal Government to come to our aid because we are dying. Now there is no Nigeria Airways and even in those days they never paid such high charges. Now that private operators has taken the initiative to run the airline business they should be encouraged by the government.
Nigerian citizens deserve something better from government and we canâ€™t continue to accept high charges imposed on the operators which are eventuallyÂ transferred to passengers.Â What is happening to the sector today is not okay because funds meant to improve services at the airports just disappeared and were never accounted for and we still have the same people there piloting the affairs of the sector with little or no change.
They never did anythingÂ to stopÂ people from diverting the funds allocated for the sectorâ€™s development.Â If at the end of the day, the committee, after looking at all these problems, they we will know what to do but we have already complained to the Federal Government that we are owing heavily as we have a lot of bills to pay and that we are not making enough money, asÂ services are not being provided and yet we are being charged heavily. If you look at what we have lost so far, you will be shocked that FAAN does not spare even a bird within the airport.
If a bird enters your engine when you are about to take off, that would cost you more than 400,000 US dollars for repairs alone. Then Customers will collect duty for sending that aircraft for repairs and for bringing it back. After September 11, the whole world provided some package to bail out their airlines but we did not receive a single assistance from our government. We pay for different charges. If our aircraft lands, we have to pay, if we pack, we also have to pay. Our office space is 35,000 naira per square meter.
We also pay VAT for importing aircraft into the country, the Custom duty we pay for each aircraft is very scaring, There is no VAT on the vehicles plying the roads and ships sailing the waters and the railways. But there is VAT on virtually everything in the aviation sector.
If you buy your ticket, the operator has to pay 5 percent VAT on passenger service to NCAA which would be shared between them and NAMA, then if a passenger brings in a luggage while traveling, the operator has to pay one thousand naira to FAAN. So,Â each time the operator flies, he has to pay one thousand naira, then any fuel he takes for his aircraft would attract a fine of 1,600 naira. If your aircraft engine got damaged and you want to access the spare parts, you canâ€™t access it due to heavy duty attached to it, there is no free duty for the spare parts the aircraft would make use of.
We are appealing for 50 percent discount on every charge they are imposing us to enable us remainÂ in business. When you go to the banks where you borrow money to run your airline business, their banks charges are just too many. At the end of the day, you begin to wonder if we are working for other people. DespiteÂ these high charges we have never seen a new airport built by FAAN.
They only concession the airport to Bi-Courtney Consortium to build and manage .So we are saying the charges are too much. Some airlines cannot even pay salaries. I know as operators we have our peculiar problems but their charges are killing us.
Now with a new minister on board, what kind of bailout do you think airline operators need?
We are not asking for too much. We want to see a reduction in all the charges. For example, concerning the debts, we are not saying they should give us waiver but they should freeze it and allow us to start paying the current bill while the other bill should be spread till the year 2020 to enable the airlines reconcile their accounts and start paying gradually.Â We have appealed to the Federal Government to provide some money in some banks called Aviation pounds which will enable the airlines to access funds with low charges of about 5 or 10 percent. So, if they can give us that and reduce the charges by 50 percent each, from now till 2020, that would go a long way in helping the airlines to stay afloatÂ There is no need for the government to say we are setting aside some amount of money for the sector except if they going to set up and run their own airline like most countries in the world
Poor weather condition has left most air passengers stranded at the airports globally.Â How has that impacted air operations in Nigeria?
The cloudy weather condition has equally affected local and international operations because aviation is a global thing. Here in Nigeria, the local operatorsÂ have incurred about 30 percent loss while those operating international flights must have lost billions of dollars to the crisis
In some locations where our airports are situated, we find thick forest around such areas. Donâ€™t you think this posses serious threat to safety ?
The issue of thick forest around our airports is very worrisome and constitutes some dangers. I think FAAN needs to look at the space they have now and see how they can make money with those space. When you go to some airports abroad, they have over twenty hangers around for most of the airlines.
If they can allocate those land for building ofÂ hangersÂ for certain airlines so that they can provide a link from the runway down to the side where people canÂ move their aircraft and put it where they are supposed to put it, that would help a lot for those who want to position their aircraft for maintenance and washing without serious challenges. Also, there would be maximum insuranceÂ if the aircraft is going to be kept on the hanger and such cases where the aircraft would be exposed to intenseÂ sun and heavy rain would be avoided.
That is another avenue open to FAAN to make a lot of money and if they cannot build it, they can give it out to concessionaires who can build the hangers and charge the airlines for services rendered.
They can also allocate it to the airlines because the account standard says every airline must own a hanger and it should free . So, if the operators must have hanger, it means the Federal Airports Authority must provide a space to make that possible. So, we need a change of attitude if the sector must develop.