By Kenneth Ehigiator
An average watcher of recent developments in the aviation sector in the country may be tempted to say Nigeria has never had it so good in terms of paying attention to upgrade in infrastructure and key navigational facilities at the nation’s airports since most of them were built decades ago.

For instance, the nation’s flagship, the Murtala Muhammed Airport was commissioned in 1979 and ever since, no efforts had been made to renew it until the recent re-modelling embarked upon by the present administration.

Stella Oduah, Aviation Minister

However, the re-modelling of physical infrastructure of airports is where the transformation of the industry stops as policy flip-flops still trail developments in the sector. Even the re-modelling appears not holistic, what with the cooling system of Lagos airport which performance remains epileptic as the chillers are as old as the airport itself.  Talks of replacing them had been mere lipservice, even by the present dispensation. What is the essence of exotic physical structures without comfort for the travelling public.

The functionality of an airport goes beyond beautiful terminal buildings as exemplified by LeopoldSedarSenghor  Airport in Dakar, Senegal, for instance.  That airport is not presentable in terms of physical beauty but is functional 24 hours of the day without power failures, stuffy terminal building and epileptic navigational aids. Where Nigeria is struggling to position the MurtalaMuhammedAirport as a hub in West Africa without success, the airport in Dakar remains a natural hub due to its functionality.

The stowaway incident at Benin airport three weeks ago is symptomatic of the rot still prevalent in the aviation sector, in spite of the semblance of transformation in the industry. Without necessarily instilling fears in the public, there may yet be more incidents of stowaway at the nation’s airports.

This is because aside from the airport in Benin, several others in the country, including the international airports, lack airport fencing, let alone perimeter fencing as prescribed by global aviation regulator, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO.

When a herd of cattle strayed onto the runway of Port HarcourtInternationalAirport about a decade ago, the promise was that within that period, all airports in the country would be equipped with perimeter fencing.  Because nothing was done, a cab rammed into an Arik airliner ready for taxiing at MargaretEkpoInternationalAirport in Calabar, which an airport fencing could have averted.

“ All we have at some of our airports at present are airport fencing, no security fencing to satisfy Annex 17 of ICAO. I think government ought to have done this a long time ago. It is unfortunate that nothing had been done about this currently,” said Capt. Dele Ore, a stakeholder.

Although these lapses were present when Nigeria got U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, category 1 certification on August 23, 2010, the expectation was that all issues relating to airport safety and security would be addressed shortly after.

However, things seem to be degenerating further, four years after.  At the moment, no Nigeria airport is certified by the regulatory agency, not even the international airports. The fear is Nigeria may lose the certification unless practical steps are taken to redress the present situation.

The infractions that made Mexico lose its certification a few years ago are not as serious as the stowaway incident at Benin airport, which gave the impression that the nation’s airports unsafe for passengers and investments.Another stakeholder, Capt Tito Omaghomi, is only concerned about the embarrassment the country had been subjected by the stowaway story, wondering why airports in Nigeria had been left with perimeter fencing, almost four years after the country secured FAA Cat1 certification.

“This incident has offered opportunity to award contracts now; we don’t do the right thing at the right time but wait for things to degenerate before we start scrambling to award contracts,” he lamented.

Beyond just creating the opportunity for Nigerian airlines to operate direct flights into U.S. destinations, the certification also serves as a blank cheque for local airlines to source for necessary foreign capital to upgrade their operations but because government is not interested in the development and growth of local airlines, this aspect of FAA category 1 certification does not appeal to those in government. Otherwise, how else does one described recent hoopla that greeted Ethiopian Airlines’, ET, foray into AkanuIbiamInternationalAirport, Enugu, two weeks ago.

It should be noted that any government serious about the development of its aviation sector would not celebrates multiple entries for foreign airlines into its territories as doing that sets the tone for death of  local airlines. And for an aviation sector that is as fledgling as Nigeria’s, the multiple entries granted foreign airlines by officials of the Aviation Ministry can best be described as debilitating for a struggling economy.

The implication of this is capital flight which, before now, had been put at close to N100 billion annually. So, the wild celebration that greeted ET flight into Enugu demonstrated the lack of capacity on the part of those drawing up policies for the aviation industry.

Enugu now makes Ethiopian Airlines’ third entry point into the country, after Lagos and Abuja. Other foreign airlines enjoy same approvals from the Aviation Ministry. This makes the aviation industry the worst bleeding spot for the country in terms of capital flight.

Ideally, local airlines are positioned to feed passengers for foreign airlines but now that the international airlines are indirectly carrying passengers to virtually every corner of the country, government’s talk about assisting domestic airlines to grow amounts to policy somersault. No sane country does it.

The entry of Ethiopian Airlines into Enugu is a negative development for domestic airlines. All we have done is to give way to kill the domestic carriers; we are killing the industry gradually.

They have also succeeded in killing operations into Port Harcourt, Owerri and Asaba, as the domestic airlines are supposed to feed passengers for foreign airlines to these airports. Politically, we have scored some good points but on the other hand, we are damaging the economy,” said Capt. Dele Ore, an ex-pilot..

In the past one year, there had been so much agitation by stakeholders against infiltration of the sector by non-aviators, people with little or no knowledge about aviation. Although the practice did not start today, close watchers of the industry expected that for a government that expressed so much passion about changing things for good, it would have been a thing of the past.

Because aviation is a technical sector which revolves around human lives, critical sections of the industry should be driven by people with sound knowledge of aviation matters. Unfortunately, political considerations had been the main criteria in employing and deploying personnel in the sector. In the past, a minister had flooded the regulatory agency with recruits from village of origin, qualified or not, and this accounted for the rot that culminated in series of crashes in the industry. However, when another minister came in, who also recruited his kinsmen into critical sections of the sector, they were all swept away.

The tragedy of the whole thing is that the practice is still prevalent. Aviation is too sensitive to be placed at the altar of ethnicity, nepotism and jingoism.  What the practice had engendered in the sector is low moral of personnel as those imposed from outside the industry are often placed in management positions to boss others around.

Aviation regulation is one area stakeholders and observers of the industry expected the present administration to build on the foundation laid by President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government. Suffice to say that prior to December 2005, aviation regulation was non-existent as airline operators and other critical players in the industry carried with business as usual.

The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, at the time had no autonomy to properly regulate the industry and had every of its programmes, from staff recruitment to airlines’ regulation, dictated by officials of the Aviation Ministry whose interest were self-serving. Consequently, their action and inaction led to the series of aviation accidents recorded between 2005 and 2006. It was the same ministry officials who in 2003 enslaved the sector to the U.S. and its allies through the Open Skies Agreement, which resolutions were completely skewed against Nigeria’s interest.

That tactless move is partly responsible for dominance of the industry by foreign airlines at present.  However, with the close collaboration of the Presidency and National Assembly, the country came up with the new Civil Act 2006 which granted the NCAA autonomy, even though the Aviation Ministry still reared its head occasionally.

That brought some sanity into the sector and culminated in the U.S. FAA category 1 certification the country attained in  2010. Can NCAA still be said to be autonomous now? Certainly not, what with the new aviation policy the Aviation Ministry churned out earlier this year.  There again lies another threat to FAA Cat1.

Observers contend that the Ministry of Aviation should put into enthronement and sustenance of aviation safety and security the same level of zeal deployed into airports’ re-modelling.

This contention is hinged on the fact that the NCAA had had problems of inadequate inspectors which the immediate past director-general, Dr. Harold Demuren, had always admitted to have worked against the agency’s capacity to adequately effect safety and economic audit of airlines operating in the country.

While re-modelling of airports could be said to be desirable, there are much more deeper issues to be addressed in the sector, if it must play the role of driving the economy as it does in other countries of the world.  What appears germane to drive growth in the sector and larger economy of the country are policies that are investment-friendly, that could place domestic airlines on the plain not only to compete but also contribute effectively to development of the economy.

The airlines, as they are, cannot grow and create jobs because of the inconsistencies in policies churned out by government.  What should bother this government, in the main, is how to address issues of multiple charges, navigational and non-navigational, skyrocketting fuel prices and high interest rates.  These are leverages foreign airlines enjoy from their host governments to make them competitive.

Floating another carrier without resolving these issues would result in the scenario that saw the end of Virgin Nigeria, after only four years of operations.  It should be noted that the industry cannot grow without commensurate growth of local airlines; foreign airlines cannot grow the country’s economy, they only help to bleed it through capital flight.

Perhaps those in the Ministry of Aviation need some training to be tutored on the mechanics of using aviation as economic driver rather than a vehicle for just moving people from points A to B.  Nigeria’s aviation has no reason not to grow, what with a population of about 170 million, which is the requisite incentive for foreign airlines who fall over themselves to do business here.

Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.