Aviation safety in the spotlight as Nigerian airlines bleed

The crash of the naira, hike in the cost of aviation fuel, among other industry concerns have worsened the battle for survival by domestic airlines, raising aviation safety fears among operators and stakeholders, Okechukwu Nnodim reports

The Federal Government, operators in the aviation sector, as well as passengers have all admitted to the fact that the industry is currently in a crisis.

Although there have been several meetings between government officials and stakeholders, the challenges confronting the sector have refused to abate, a development that has led to the suspension of operations of some domestic carriers.

Notable among the reasons for the crisis in the sector are the crash of the local currency, naira, against the United States dollar; and the astronomical hike in the cost of aviation fuel, popularly called JetA1.

This challenge in the air transportation business is gradually creating aviation safety fears among operators and stakeholders, though the Federal Government, through its Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, is battling to keep the industry safe.

“The crisis, of course, is creating air safety fears not just among stakeholders, but among the flying public and within some very senior government officials,” an aviation expert and President, Association of Foreign Airlines and Representatives in Nigeria, Kingsley Nwokeoma, stated.

The umbrella organisation for the country’s domestic carriers, Airline Operators of Nigeria, attributed the crisis in the sector to the high cost of JetA1 and the difficulty in accessing foreign exchange required for the business.

The crisis recently led to the halt in the operations of two popular domestic carriers, Aero Contractors and Dana Air, though investigations by the NCAA are ongoing as regards the safety of Dana Air.

On July 18, 2022, Aero Contractors announced that due to the impact of the challenging operating environment on its daily operations, the management of company wish to effect the temporary suspension of its scheduled passenger services operations with effect from July 20, 2022.

“This decision was carefully considered and taken due to the fact that most of our aircraft are currently undergoing maintenance, resulting in our inability to offer a seamless and efficient service to our esteemed customers,” the carrier had stated in a statement.

The firm further stated that the past few months had been very challenging for the aviation industry and the airline operators in particular.

“With the high cost of maintenance, skyrocketing fuel prices, inflation, and forex scarcity resulting in high foreign exchange rates. These are among the major components of airline operations,” it stated.

The airline, however, noted that it was working assiduously to return to service as quickly as possible.

Also, on July 20, 2022, the NCAA announced the suspension of Dana Air’s Air Transport Licence and Air Operator Certificate indefinitely, which took effect from midnight of same day.

NCAA’s Director-General, Capt. Musa Nuhu, disclosed this in a statement, adding that the authority had informed the management of Dana Air.

The statement partly read, “The decision is the outcome of a financial and economic health audit carried out on the airline by the authority, and the findings of an investigation conducted on the airline’s flight operations recently, which revealed that Dana Air is no longer in a position to meet its financial obligations and to conduct safe flight operations.

“The NCAA acknowledges the negative effect this pre-emptive decision will have on the airline’s passengers and the travelling public and seeks their understanding, as the safety of flight operations takes priority over all other considerations.”

Providing some explanation as to the cause of the crisis in the sector, the AFARN president told our correspondent that the situation in the aviation industry was not only local but global.

He said, “After the COVID-19 outbreak, the impact is not just on the domestic sector, it is on global aviationfor us all to see, because even the bigger carriers, world carriers have cut down their orders from Boeing and Airbus.

“And if you also notice, everybody is trying to work around cost. And, of course, Nigeria is part of the world. So, apparently, the crisis will also get to us. Then this is coupled with the Russia-Ukraine war and all the issues going on, especially for a country like ours that don’t have functional refineries.

“We don’t refine our own aviation fuel, just like normal fuel too, everything is imported. So it is a very big issue. If we had refineries, if we could produce our own, perhaps we wouldn’t have been in this state. So all these trends are affecting us.”

On the collapse of airlines, Nwokeoma stated that operators in the sector saw it coming, adding that there was still fear that another domestic carrier might suspend operations soon.

“Of course, we saw Aero coming. Of course, it happened. Dana also happened. And the question is, who’s next? Because apparently when we have issues and everybody is trying to work around staying afloat, or staying alive, there is the tendency that safety might be compromised,” he stated.

Nwokeoma added, “From last year to this year, we’ve been having this price increase in airfares, moving from N30,000-plus to over N50,000 and now about N100,000. Now who is going to fly?

“The flying public will have to look for alternatives. So the government needs to sit down with the carriers if we are to still have a domestic aviation sector, because the average man can’t afford these tickets. That’s the truth.”

He, however, stated that the price hike in air tickets was justifiable, as the major component in air transportation business had also skyrocketed in cost.

“Aviation fuel is the major component. So, if you don’t have fuel, you can’t fly. The fuel price is going astronomically high and that means it will reflect on the tickets. So it’s a serious situation that we have here, just like Allen Onyema (Chairman, Air Peace) said during the Nigeria Aviation Conference,” the AFARN president stated.

Nwokeoma added, “He (Onyema) said that it might get to a point where we would not even have carriers flying, because if you are spending all your money in buying fuel, then what of the other components like maintenance, payments of salaries, training, etc.

“So it’s the situation that we have here and it might degenerate if the government does not sit down with these carriers and find the solution on how to manage this crisis, for we are not close to crisis. We are in crisis already.”

Nwokeoma observed that though the government had been meeting with airlines on some of those issues, such meetings had yet to yield the desired results.

He said, “We are saying we can’t lose that sector because that is where it is tending towards currently. And there is little that the airlines can do if the fuel cost is going very high. The only solution is to keep raising fares and that will affect the masses.

“If you’re going to Abuja, and you’re going to be spending close to N200,000, then it’s a problem. How much does the middle class earn? So that means people will start looking for alternatives regardless of whether there is security crisis or otherwise.”

“What it means is that if it is not affordable, if it is extremely high, then people will start looking at other forms of transportation. So we need an intervention to keep that sector going.”

The on July 19, 2022 explained that the JetAl crisis began in late February and deteriorated further through the months of March to May, and further worsened to the point of threatening the ability of airlines to continue operations.

“The price of JetA1 rose suddenly from N200 in December 2021 to over N400/litre in February. Today the price has skyrocketed to over N800/litre,” the association had stated.

It added, “On top of the continuous rise in the price of aviation fuel, supply is at best epileptic and unpredictable at several airports across the country thereby causing flight delays, and even cancellations, as airlines queue for fuel at airports across the country.

“Added to the already difficult situation, is the high cost and scarcity of foreign exchange. It is pertinent to note that airlines carry out most of their activities in dollars.”

However, amidst these challenges and crisis, the Federal Government and its NCAA have vowed to ensure that the air transportation business remained safe.

“It is our core mandate to ensure that the aviation sector is safe and that is what we’ve been doing and will continue to do,” the spokesperson, NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, told our correspondent.

Also, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, on Tuesday stated that though there was no immediate solution to the crisis rocking the industry, the government was making efforts to address the challenges.

Sirika had said, “Energy crises is real and it is global. Today there is aviation fuel problem all over the world. From America to New Zealand. It is aggravating in Nigeria because we don’t produce the product.

“It is aggravated also because the foreign exchange is scarce in Nigeria and the source of earning the foreign exchange has also has dwindled”.

He said the Federal  Government had in the past sourced 10,000 metric tonnes of aviation fuel for domestic airlines, adding that the government was wiling to do more.

“As we speak, the government is in the process of finding a permanent  solution to this issue,” Sirika stated.

Outlining some of the the solutions, the minister said it would include, “importation of the product at the appropriate price, accelerating the refurbishment of our refineries and also wait for the coming on stream of Dangote Refinery to boost supply of the product.”

He, however, noted that this would not happen soon.

“So when you ask how soon, I wouldn’t know when Dangote will come on stream, I wouldn’t know how soon the refineries will be fixed. I wouldn’t know when imports would become sufficient. But the government is working towards all these to happen,” Sirika stated.

The minister said he would meet with relevant stakeholders including the Central Bank of Nigeria so that the airlines could access forex at the official rate rather than the black market price.

Article first published on the Punch Website

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