By Ebele Orakpo
Alhaji Mohammed Tukur is well known in aviation circles as he has spent almost all his life working to improve the Nigerian Aviation industry. He is the Assistant General Secretary, Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON).
Born 53 years ago in the university town of Zaria, Kaduna State, Tukur had his primary education in Zaria and secondary education in Government Secondary School, Kaduna.
He then proceeded to the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria for a Diploma in Administration. He was later employed by Kabo Air and was sent to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as the airline was the only Nigerian carrier involved in Hajj operations at the time. He worked in the Arab nation for some years before he was invited to take up an appointment with Chanchangi Airlines as the co-ordinator/public relations manager.
In a recent chat with Vanguard in Lagos, Alhaji Tukur who was recently appointed as Executive Director, Public Affairs and Government Relations of Spanish engineering and construction company, Lopez Torres, spoke on issues ranging from the challenges in the industry, the achievements, plans for the future, and appealed to the federal government to ensure that only professionals are brought in to man every segment of the Aviation industry. Excerpts.
In the beginning:
We started Chanchangi Airlines with one aircraft which we lost in 1987. We had to lease another one to continue the business. Within four years, we leased five aircraft and in the fifth year, we bought the first aircraft, (727-200 Series DASH-17-engine), one of the best aircraft at that time because nobody even had DASH-15 and only few had DASH-8.
After four years of lease, the airline had a capacity of 12 serviceable aircraft. We made outright purchase with money generated at the time. After almost 15 years in Chanchangi, I resigned and went to form Rahamaniyya Airlines and got the Air Transport Licence (ATL) for the company. As I got the ATL, Afrijet Airlines invited me because they had been there for almost three years without licence. So I joined Afrijet as Executive Director, Corporate Affairs and Protocol and within three months, I was able to get them Air Operator’s Certificate, then got two aircraft to fly for the airline. I resigned thereafter, the reason being that I have my principle and way of doing things and I believe that if I notice that the room in which we live is about to collapse and I keep telling you don’t do it this way, this is the way you should do it and you refuse to listen, all I need to do is leave.
In the Aviation industry, the major challenge is double taxation. If you understand that the Federal Government doesn’t have any national carrier after Nigeria Airways was liquidated so I think as a result of that, the government does not really look into the goings on in the sector and so, the sector began to decline. I would say the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority is doing very well really in terms of policing the activities in the sector, making sure that everybody complies with the safety rules and regulations. You will recall that a few months back, it was not the way it is now. At that time, if you as a passenger, knew what was happening in the cockpit, you will not want to fly.
I want to make it categorically clear that some few months ago, an enemy could come into the country and bomb Lagos, Abuja and Kano and get out of this country undetected. It was that bad. But thank God, we now have people who make the Nigerian air space safe. They have done very well but because of age and politics in Nigeria, no matter how you serve the country, as soon as another government takes over, they will kick you out. So that was the problem.
Outsiders were brought in to manage the sector. In any system, when you remove an insider, for instance, an air traffic controller or a staff of Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) who is an engineer, and you bring in somebody from the outside instead of those people who have a stake, who believe that when they retire, they will get their retirement benefits, the moment you remove them and bring somebody from outside, like a politician, the only thing he will be thinking about is how to make enough money to contest election. That is exactly what happens and that is why we are appealing to government to ensure that only professionals are brought in to man every segment of the Aviation industry.
Frankly speaking, they did very well. Today, if you are approaching our air space, the air traffic controller is the one to tell you, unlike what obtained in the past whereby as an aircraft approached, let’s take Aero for instance, the controller says Aero Flight 112, your position. This simply means that the air traffic controller is not seeing the aircraft. He is actually asking your position. So it is the pilot that will look out the window, may be they have just passed Ibadan and he sees it on the mileage that he has passed Ibadan and he replies the controller: ‘Lagos Tower, I have passed Ibadan etc.’ They will then tell you either to climb to so, so, so or descend to so, so so level. They normally ask your position and the speed. It means they are not seeing you but today, they will just call your name ‘Aero Flight 11, reduce speed at this, descend at this. That means they are seeing you, the type of aircraft, the speed, everything. There has been tremendous improvement.
So when NAMA says we need to pay those charges and some members of AON are kicking against it because they are saying the charges are too much but I tell them no, we don’t need to go back to where we are coming from. Let us pay so they can maintain what we have now. It is not going to be up to one person’s ticket.
Another challenge has to do with banks. At that time, if you want to float an airline and you go to the bank for loan, they may give you a loan with 35% interest but I don’t know about now. You know the way banks acted back then, when they give you loan, they don’t care about any other thing but their interest. They sit down in the office and calculate the interest on the loan. Some who took such loans, pull the money and try to use it for something else and at the end of the day, you discover that the airline is not functioning anymore. Over 13 airlines are not operating in this country today. They have gone under due to this kind of debt. What banks do not realise is that it is penny-wise, pound foolish. You give somebody money and fail to follow up. I expect that if a bank gives you money to start a business, they should get someone to monitor the loan and collect the payment when it is due.
I have seen an airline that got over $US30 million from a foreign bank. At the end of the day, only two aircraft came out and at the end of six months, the airline went under. What happened to all the money? Why did all the aircraft go for C-Check at the same time? Either there was no planning or somebody was trying to play a fast one.
Again, the price of aviation fuel is higher in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world.
You discover that no international airline stays more than two hours at our airports because of the high charges. Once you land, you have about 30 – one hour grace before they start charging you for parking. Take Air France for instance, by the time it arrives in Nigeria by say 5.00pm, by 8.00 pm, they are checking in to leave again. The international aircraft use wings but some local aircraft park outside the wings to avoid high charges.
Today, you hardly see any international airline stopping in Nigeria because of high charges. If they have anything to do here, they would rather park the aircraft in Ghana, come to Nigeria, take their passengers to Ghana to board. And if any of the aircraft develops a technical fault after take-off, they will prefer to land in Cotonou and maintain their aircraft and take off from there rather than coming back to Nigeria. I hope the government does something about it.
I am grateful to God and the Minister of Aviation for looking into the issue of double taxation. The secretary-general has done a lot too, making his case. At the end of the day, the minister wrote us a letter saying that the relevant authorities will review the charges at least to assist airline operators in Nigeria.
The second achievement is the bailout provided by the Federal Government at the rate of 7% which I believe is too slow really but I think it’s a move in the right direction. I hope the conditions will be good enough for people to be able to access the funds. But the fact still remains that no matter how much you give an airline, it is not going to help if the Federal Government does not remove the VAT on the spare parts and the aircraft themselves because by the time you import an aircraft, you pay the duty on it and if something goes wrong with the engine and you send it for repairs, when you are bringing it back into the country, you have to pay duty again. This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. That is why I said the major problem in this business is double taxation. Thank God the government is addressing the issue so we are hoping that soon, we can bring in our aircraft duty-free. That will be enough even if they don’t give us anything else.
Plans for the future:
We are planning to commence cargo operations. It’s an area that is not being tapped in Nigeria. Everybody is rushing into passenger service but you can do this quietly without any problem when you have your own aircraft. If we can deploy at least two 747, it will go a long way in boosting our economy and also creating employment.
On a final note:
Finally, the government needs to assist the industry and the airline operators need to assist themselves as well. What I mean is this, there is no way you will take out money from a business and put it in another business, definitely you are killing the first business. Some airlines do just that. You know Nigerians, when you have an aircraft, people begin to look at you as a very rich person.
And some forget that the whole money you get in an operation is not yours because you have to pay for the fuel, settle the Federal Ports Authority (FPA), NAMA, landing, parking, navigation, passenger service and the rest. But you see some of them donating huge sums of money at every occasion. May be he makes N20 – N30 million daily, and donate more than half of the money in an occasion when he has not settled his bills. So there is a need for accountability. First, paywhat you owe and then you know what belongs to you so if you want to give out money, you know exactly what to give out.