By Lawani Mikairu
IN spite of the recent sigh of relief by domestic airline operators that passengers traffic is gradually increasing after the lull arising from the COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions, passengers are still experiencing flight delays and cancellations.
Many have wondered why the airlines are not taking advantage of the rise in passengers traffic to increase flight frequency and make more money to mitigate the losses they suffered during the COVID-19 lockdown world wide.
However, a critical look at the sector will reveal that airline operators are still battling with situations beyond their immediate control. They want to take advantage of the current security situation in the country which has made air travel the safest means of travel. But there are still problems confronting them.
Some of these problems include the COVID-19 pandemic which is developing new strains in some countries. This has made some of these countries not to fully lift restrictions on movements and travels. These countries with second wave of COVID-19 have aircraft maintenance facilities where some domestic airline operators took their aircraft for routine mandatory maintenance before restrictions and lockdown were imposed to curtail the pandemic.
Most of these aircraft are currently trapped in these facilities because of slow pace of work as the workforce of these facilities were drastically reduce during the lockdown. The maintenance facilities are also waiting for full lifting of restrictions on travels around the world to enable businesses to pick up, especially with private jet owners clients, before recalling their redundant staff.
Scarcity of forex
Also, difficulty in accessing forex needed by some domestic airlines to carry out their routine maintenance which are mostly done outside the country due to absence of standard Maintenance Repair Organisations, MRO, in the country, is another factor that has contributed to flight delays and cancellations.
Only new airlines which recently joined the Nigerian domestic aviation sector are currently not reeling from the scarcity of forex as their planes are not due for maintenance yet. They will be due in the next 18 months when they will be expected to go for mandatory checks of their aircraft.
The international recommended standard and practice is that aircraft must be taken for checks and maintenance at regular interval, whether or not they fly or are parked at the apron at the airports. So, airlines cannot escape this mandatory requirement to remain in operation.
Therefore, some of the domestic airlines currently do not have the required planes to carry out maximum flight operations. The planes are not on ground for flight operations. Some of these aircraft are parked waiting to be flown out for maintenance or those already out are trapped outside in maintenance facilities around the world. Speaking with Vanguard on how mandatory maintenance and COVID-19 lockdown have affected airlines and their operations, former Director General, Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, and current Rector, International Civil Aviation College, Ilorin, Bennedit Adeyinleka said the pandemic was bound to affect the operations of civil aviation for a long time.
He also said there was no way Nigeria could have been insulated from the global effect of the pandemic on civil aviation, adding that the recovery process for the civil aviation will be gradual. According to him: “Nigerian domestic airlines were bound to face the fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their flight operations were definitely going to be affected with the restrictions on movements by countries round the world.
“With the lifting of COVID-19 travel restrictions, flight operations could not have attained full peak. It was bound to be gradual because aircraft that are needed for operations will be deployed gradually. Remember some of these aircraft were parked during the lockdown and they are going to be serviced before they commence flights again. Some of them were already due for mandatory maintenance before and during the lockdown.
These maintenance are done mostly outside the country because of absence of standard maintenance organisations in Nigeria and huge funds are needed for that. So, with the lifting of restrictions and increase in passengers traffic, the travelling public should not expect immediate return to seamless air travel.
“Although, I do not believe that it is the absence of enough aircraft that is contributing to flight delays and cancellations. There are other operational factors, like airports facilities, that are contributing to these delays and cancellations. Slow processing of passengers can and do contribute to these delays and outright cancellations of flights to airports that operate only in the day time.”
Also speaking with Vanguard, a former maintenance engineer with the defunct Nigeria Airways, Mr. Nurrudeen Ajayi, said the absence of aircraft maintenance facilities in the country was bound to affect Nigerian domestic airlines adversely with the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic and the attendant restrictions on movements around the world.
Ajayi said: “There is no way aircraft already parked in maintenance facilities outside the country are not going to be trapped there. Those due for maintenance could also not have been taken out. The cumulative effect of this is that flight operations will be affected after the pandemic and lifting of restrictions. So this slow pick up of flight operations was to be expected.
“A way out is for airlines to re-fleet like Air Peace is doing with new aircraft that will not be due for maintenance immediately. I like what the Air Peace chairman is doing. He can easily overcome some of these problems.
“New airlines just coming into the business might not be immediately affected as their planes will not be due for mandatory checks and maintenance.
“The current economic situation in the country is not helping the airlines who incure most of their costs in dollars. The current difficulty in getting forex is affecting the airlines badly. However, I will enjoin the travelling public to show understanding as this particular phase of air travel will soon be overcome with the discovery of vaccines for the coronavirus.”
Revealing how the pandemic and non-availability of forex have affected his operations, the Chairman of Air Peace airlines, Allen Onyema, in a recent interview, said that currently about 20 of Air Peace aircraft are in maintenance facilities overseas and some of them are expected to start coming back very soon. He added that what has delayed the delivery of the aircraft is the COVID-19 lockdown, which forced maintenance facilities to stay off work.
Onyema said: “Most of the countries where these planes were taken to are in various levels of lockdown and as a result, the pace of work on our planes has slowed down. This has depleted our capacity both within and outside Nigeria. We are not alone in this; all the older airlines are experiencing the same thing. The only airlines that may not be having these challenges are the very new airlines within and outside Nigeria because they are just starting. But those about seven years are all doing C-checks. But before the end of July, all our planes that are in maintenance will be brought back.”
He also revealed that non-availability of dollars in the official market is affecting aviation industry adversely. “Everything we do is in dollars. We have not been able to discharge our obligations to foreign maintenance organisations because we need dollars to give them. We have the naira but to get dollars is difficult. The Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, has been trying for us and we understand the plight that it is not the fault of government but we are pleading that we should be able to access forex more easily.
“The existing planes we took for maintenance abroad will be coming in by June and we would fill the country with our planes. The economy section of our new aircraft is like the business class of other airlines. I’m a nationalist and I believe in this country; that’s why I want the best planes for Nigerians,” Onyema said.