By Michael Eboh, Favour Nnabugwu & Lawani Mikairu
LAGOS — Foreign airlines flying to Nigeria have started refueling abroad, to bypass highly priced and increasingly scarce aviation fuel in the country. This is coming on the heels of Arik Air’s suspension of flight operations to all airports across the country due to its inability to secure aviation fuel, also known as JET-A1.
Consequently, hundreds of domestic passengers were stranded all over the country, following the airline’s inability to airlift them to their destinations. At press time, none of Arik’s aircraft had been deployed to any destination in Nigeria, West Africa and other routes.A reliable source, who does not want to be named, told Vanguard that the massive debts of the airline to major oil marketers who regularly supply aviation fuel is partially responsible for the current situation of the airline. Although there are reports that in addition to the airline’s inability to pay for fuel, its insurers in Europe and elsewhere had withdrawn insurance cover from the airline forcing the airline to stop flight operations altogether.
Meanwhile, foreign airlines say that the high cost of aviation fuel in the country is the second blow for airlines in a year that first saw the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, made it almost impossible to for them to repatriate profits from ticket sales as part of moves to prevent further depreciation of the naira. Reuters report said that the crash in the naira since a devaluation in June has led firms who market jet fuel locally, such as Total, Sahara and ConocoPhillips, to double the price to N220 per litre in August, and to as much as N400 this month, quoting an airline executive.
It added that even at the higher costs, marketers’ lack of dollars has made fuel scarce, while some airlines have had aircraft stuck, or were forced to cancel planned journeys, after frantic last-minute calls from ground staff warned there was no fuel available.
Specifically, the report, quoting a spokesperson for Emirates Airline, stated that the Airline has started a detour to Accra, Ghana, to refuel its daily Abuja-bound flight, and has already cut its twice-daily flights to Lagos and Abuja to just one.
According to the report, the move was aided by a substantial drop in Ghana’s jet prices amid tax reform last month. In addition, it stated that Air France-KLM said it had refueled abroad in very exceptional cases by juggling suppliers and stomaching extra costs.
Germany’s Lufthansa, on the other hand, is loading more fuel in Frankfurt for its Lagos flight, where the ground staff doubts their ability to refuel for the final destination of Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, an executive said. British Airways, the report added, now uses smaller aircraft on its Lagos-London route, as did Air France-KLM.
It added that Turkish Airlines’ use of smaller planes has added another inconvenience, as passengers complained there is not always space for luggage on the smaller aircraft, delaying it for days.
“It’s an impossible situation. The oil marketers do not want to sign long-term agreements anymore so we have to accept whatever prices they demand. We sell tickets in naira and now they want us to come with dollars,” one airline executive said.
The report disclosed that Spain’s Iberia and United Airlines cancelled their Nigeria services earlier this year, and two local carriers also halted operations, while other international airlines responded by boosting ticket prices within Nigeria, charging its globe-trotting elite as much as $2,000 for an economy class ticket to Europe to cut losses – more than double the cost of a Lagos ticket bought abroad.
Commenting on the development, John Ashbourne, an economist with Capital Economics, said “The economy is crying out for investment, and now it is going to be even harder for anyone to visit. Who is going to want to pack a billion dollars in a country that you can not even easily fly to? It sends the worst possible signal.”
The report noted that the CBN hoped floating the naira would attract dollar inflows, but the naira sunk by 50 per cent, forcing oil firms to charge airlines, stuck with piles of naira, in dollars for jet fuel. It added that the scarcity has even pitted airlines against local consumers; a surge in demand for cooking and heating kerosene during the rainy season, when households cannot easily burn wood or charcoal, means if the airlines do not pay up, marketers will sell to locals.
It however, noted that Nigeria used to be one of the most profitable markets for foreign airlines, landing planes with plenty of first and business class to cater to executives and officials jetting around under former President Goodluck Jonathan.
In the case of Arik Air, a source close to the oil marketers said that the airline is a bad debtor as it currently owes at least N3 billion to all its suppliers, a situation, which has made them not to supply Jet A1 to the airline. The sordid situation may also affect the airline’s long-haul operations to Heathrow Airport in London and New York in the United States of America. A passenger with the airline, Chris Amokwu told our correspondent that he had been at the airport as early as 7:00 for a 7:30 am flight to Abuja, but as at 1 pm, he was yet to know if he would eventually make the trip to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
According to him, the airline attributed its inability to operate to the scarcity of Jet A1 and poor weather condition. But Jet A1 is available in the local scene as airlines such as Med-View, Air Peace and Landover Airways have been operating, despite the alleged scarcity of aviation fuel and poor weather by the airline.
However, reacting to the development yesterday, the airline said it suspended operations due to its inability to immediately renew its aircraft insurance. In a statement signed by the spokesman, Mr Adebanji Ola, the airline said: “Arik Air, West and Central Africa’s largest airline, has alerted all air travelers of a temporary disruption to its operations, pending approval of aircraft documentation related to insurance renewal.’