By Prince Okafor
Over the past 63 years, Nigeria’s aviation sector has witnessed significant challenges that mirror the country’s ambition among its peers.
A breakdown of the country’s aviation statistics according to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, shows that the country has 31 airports and 39 Air Operator Certificate, AOC, holders for flight operations, along with 28 foreign airlines.
The industry has seen growth overtime. Currently, Nigeria boasts of 2133 licensed pilots, 1659 aircraft maintenance engineers, 371 Air Traffic Controllers, and 2343 cabin crew licenses, among others.
The sector has indeed experienced notable growth, from the inception of Nigeria Airways to the development of key aviation hubs like Lagos’ Murtala Muhammed International Airport and Abuja’s Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport.
However, this progress hasn’t been without its share of turbulence. Despite these accomplishments, stakeholders have voiced concerns about ongoing challenges, including infrastructure deficiencies, safety issues, financial instability, and regulatory obstacles.
Security threats and high operational costs have also cast shadows over the industry’s prospects, giving rise to calls for a more balanced approach.
Ministerial actions and financial concerns
It’s noteworthy that the Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development, Mr. Fetus Keyamo, suspended further actions on Nigeria Air and airport concession last month due to complaints from members of the public and government agencies.
Additionally, the International Air Transport Association, IATA, disclosed that international airlines’ blocked funds in Nigeria have risen to $783 million as of August 2023.
Although President Bola Tinubu directed the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, to create a platform for quarterly reconciliatory meetings with foreign airlines to address the backlog of their funds, but this initiative has yet to commence.
Furthermore, the sector’s recent performance at the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, safety audit, scoring 70 percent, has sparked debate among stakeholders, with some insisting that it was a failure.
Lack of Professionals in the System — Capt. Ado Sanusi
In a reaction to the development across the sector, the Chief Executive, Aero Contractors, Capt. Ado Sanusi, told Aviation World in an exclusive interview that the sector lacks adequate professionals.
In his words: “There are some achievements made over the years and we can do better. We have moved towards what ICAO recommended, separating the service providers with the regulator, which was a big achievement, in that regards, the NCAA, Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, NAMA and Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, were created and given their own autonomy.
“We have had lots of challenges over the years, one of them is the lack of human capital training. Nigeria does not have adequate professionals in the system.
“Since Nigerian airways was liquidated, no airline has embarked on the type of training that Nigeria airways did, so that created a vacuum.
“Over the years we have been going with the vacuum which is the recycling of aviation professionals, as airlines spend little on training, which cannot accommodate what is needed. The NCAA is doing some training but is still not enough to close the gap on manpower shortage.
“Also, Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, NCAT is another achievement, I remember in the 90’s it was difficult to graduate students out of the flying school, but now, they have acquired new aircraft and they are making progress in training pilots and engineers but still that is not enough for the industry.
“The other aspect that we have not worked on at all is the creation of a national carrier. We have not made any headway yet. After 63 years we cannot boost of any airline that has 30 airplanes flying across the whole of Africa.
“That is not a good thing at all and I believe by now we should have a formidable carrier be it state, privately or public owned to service the Nigerian Market and we have not gotten it right yet we are thinking of going or not going for a national carrier.
“We have failed to encourage start-up airlines that showed some promising signs, to ensure that they don’t quit, rather they are helped out in their business model and encouraged to go public.
“Arik air for instance at some time had close to 20 aircraft, those kind of business are businesses that usually stay outside the country, cushioned to survive better. Aero Contractor is another airline that should be assisted and not allowed to die.
“On the Maintenance Repair and Overhaul, MRO, we have made progress on it but not on the level it should be. Like Aero Contractor, one of the MRO company that did the C-check on 737 classic, and it still servicing most of the 737 in the country.
“But have we gotten to the level we want? The answer is no. There is a lot of investment needed in that sector.
“There’s lot of improvement if we compare from where we started but again we shouldn’t give ourselves part in the back, our performance at the ICAO audit that sparked a lot of controversies.
“Some people think that it is not a good performance, while others think it is, but I think otherwise. If we had scored high in all areas then we can say let us improve.
“A chain is as strong as its weakest link so it is for safety, your safety indices are as strong as the weakest link of your safety. There is a lot of improvement that needs to be done in those areas.
“NCAT, Nigerian Meteorological Agency, NiMet and NAMA need to improve their services. This is more than a year NCAT acquired 737 NG aircraft and it is yet to be utilized, an equipment worth more than $10 million.
“NAMA is also supposed to be looking at the upgrade of their surveillance system. NiMet should also look at ways of presenting a more accurate forecast system and automate it as it is done in some parts of the world. And also good satellite imagery that the pilots can look at.”
Sector struggling with management — Capt. Caulcrick
Also, a former Rector, Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, NCAT, Captain Samuel Caulcrick stated that the country has made tremendous strides in human capital development in aviation in its 63 years as a nation.
He said: “Nigerian aviators, on a global scale, could hold their own in all sectors and topped it with a Nigerian becoming the immediate past president of the ICAO.
“Nigeria has struggled with the management of the sector; it’s not an isolated case, as we have not been able to separate efficiency from equity in the aviation subsectors that the government manages and the absence of corporate governance in the airlines owned by private individuals.
“The erosion of the buying power of most people in Nigeria has stunted the growth of the aviation sector. The sector has struggled to attract the majority of the people going to motor parks or who drive their vehicles on the road to the local airports for their travel plans.
“As a way forward, the majority of the people’s buying power will only make an impact on aviation growth in Nigeria with low-cost carrier airlines. Volume is what the sector needs for sustainability. The legacy airline model seems to have reached a saturation point.”
Only foreign airlines benefit from BASA routes — Capt Ojikutu
On his part, a former commandant of the MMIA, Lagos, Group Captain John Ojikutu, stated that based on the 2000 projection of 20m passengers traffic for 2020, it is sad that even three years beyond, we still cannot attain the projected figure in spite of the increase in the number of airports and number of the airlines aircraft compare to the numbers in the late 90s and early 20s.
“These are wastes of the scarce resources for the critical social development for the masses. The expected earnings on the BASA routes are beneficial to only the foreign airlines.
“After 20 years of the defunct Nigeria Airways, we are yet to take back our rights on the BASA Routes. We are yet to reestablish a National Carrier neither are we ready to designate any of the private or domestic carriers as flag carriers.
“Rather than doing any of these, those in the administration of our government and the management of the agencies thrive in institutional Corruption by continuously opening our domestic routes by way of multiple destinations to the foreign airlines invariably the Domestic Markets to the foreign airlines.
“As a way forward, the federal government must get itself out of the direct involvement in commercial aviation and face Aeronautical Safety and Security Services. Government must concession the MMIA two terminals without delay to help stop the institutional corruption going on with the so-called repairs of the old that have resulted in fire in the building.
“Remember that the Domestic terminal that gave birth to the MM2 was raised down completely by fire. This should be the selling points to the prospective investors and the political power that be in Abuja especially in Aso Rock.
We have highest attrition rate — Ohunayo
Also, an aviation Expert, Olumide Ohunayo stated that Nigeria has the highest number of domestic airlines in Africa, not by number of aircraft but by registered airlines.
He said: “In the number of equipment, we are behind, we have the highest attrition rate. We have crossed the ICAO registration process, our airlines are IOSA certified.
“We have the highest attrition rates, as our airlines are not viable out there. Those operating are yet to obtain profit margin. We have been ascent on the international routes despite numerous BASA in place.
“We have increased the number of airports in the country over the years, although most of them are under used because of the limitation of sunset airport policies which has reduced usage.