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Flying on broken wings: Nigerian airlines bemoan harsh operational environment

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By Emeka Okoroanyanwu

In a surprise move that took stakeholders aback recently, the Federal Government ordered the suspension of action on the planned national carrier, Nigeria Air, which was previously scheduled to commence operations in December this year. No reason was, however, given for the action. But Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, who announced the suspension in Abuja, said the decision was for strategic reasons and not politics. He, however, pledged government’s resolve to honour all contractual commitments to investors.

“I regret to announce that the Federal Executive Council has taken the tough decision to suspend the national carrier project in the interim,” Sirika said.

He explained that the decision had nothing to do with the pressure from stakeholders because, “We have explained as a government that for 40 years since 1978 to 1980 when decision was made to liberalise the sector, we saw the coming of Okada, Aero, ADC, Bellview; we have seen their coming and their exit and right now, we have got Medview, Air Peace, Arik; we have got all of these people with permission to go international. We have given them Banjul, Dubai, London, South Africa and everywhere.

“Of course none of them is meeting the need by Nigerian people to have robust national carrier and that is to say that something is amiss. That was the intention of government to be able to set up a carrier that would deliver this service to the Nigerian people. So, the service is needed and that is why the Federal Government went ahead to appoint transaction adviser to continue the process. So, it has nothing to do with pressure. There is no pressure and you and I know that the service is not being delivered in Nigeria; locally here and internationally as well.”

According to the minister, “Prices of tickets are astronomical within international routes and certain routes in Nigeria that ought to be developed are not developed. In the past, Nigeria Airways was doing Makurdi, Sokoto, Calabar, Maiduguri with DC10 and full.

“So, this absence, this gap is there. With all the number of airlines flying the country, this sudden growth to 20 airplanes, we have seen it in Okada, Kabo, Arik and many others but the service is not being delivered. So there is no argument from stakeholders to say we should not proceed, no.”

But industry operators have attributed the decision of government to suspend the project to lack of planning, even as they welcomed the decision. They said what the aviation sector requires now is an environment that is conducive for their operations.  They blamed high industry tax, unstable exchange rate and rising operational costs as cogs in the wheels of the aviation industry.

Chairman of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Captain Nogie Meggison in reaction to the suspension said in Lagos that the entire project was shrouded in secrecy and in a manner that would not have served the best interest of the country. He said that the process that gave birth to the project was neither transparent nor did it clearly define the role of private investors in the entire process.

 “Setting up of national carrier will cost Nigeria at least $3 billon (a single B777 as of today costs about $ 320m.),” asking “Is it wise and should it be our priority as a nation to take $3 billon from the Nigerian coffers today and put into a venture that will for sure go down the drain within a maximum of five years required to establish a national carrier?”                     

 According to Meggison, the national carrier will need an additional cash injection of $500 million subsidy per year on average for the next 10 years to keep the airline afloat, while about 97per cent of the 200 million Nigerian masses today are grappling for the basic necessities of life. He said what Nigeria needs today is a more friendly operational environment and infrastructure support for the growth of a private airline industry.                     

 “Today,  Air Peace is Nigeria’s largest airline operator with 30 aircraft. The airline has acquired four Boeing B777 with 10 Boeing B737Max on order. Medview has gotten one Boeing B777 and another Boeing B767, while Azman Air just received an Airbus 340 aircraft. These are huge positive steps and the biggest growth in Africa this quarter that needs government support, better infrastructure, low interest rates , fewer levies, better runway landing aids among others as well as encouragement,” Meggison added.