Cosmas Omegoh, Christy Anyanwu and Agatha Emeadi
Nigeria’s aviation industry is ready to roar to life again. Domestic airline operators and their regulators say their operations would commence this week as preparations to take to the skies again have been concluded though threat of COVID-19 is still hanging like the sword of Damocles across the nation.
About three months ago, every stakeholder in the industry was brutally driven into limbo by the rampaging Coronavirus pandemic, which crept out from China. But now, the aviation operators are ready to take to the turf again, as they are turbo charged to confront the pandemic head-on.
According to the airlines, they cannot wait to return. For them, their fleets have rested too long in the hangars as planes are meant to be flying not to sit on the ground.
Thus, they have been missing the alluring clouds for too long, the same for the profit they make from ferrying people around.
Precisely on Monday, March 23, this year, in a bid to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) closed the country’s airspace to international flight operations “with the exception of emergency and essential flights.”
Within the same period, domestic airlines – Arik Air, Aero Contractors, Air Peace, Dana Air and others – one after the other began to suspend their operations.
The airlines’ decision to close shop was such a painful one. They didn’t plan for it, they didn’t bargain for it. It was the fallout from the rampaging COVID-19.
Indeed, no one saw the deadly virus coming. It simply sneaked in, hitting hard on everyone, as well as organisations. Not one sector is spared.
After over three months of no operations, the airlines are resuming operations on Wednesday, July 8, following the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 lifting of ban on domestic flights, beginning with Abuja and Lagos.
But there is this genuine fear amongst the flying community – the safety of its members. The passengers are well within their own right to be apprehensive about what will happen, especially as COVID-19 appears to run amok across the world with a little slip.
But in our survey, the airlines have assured that there is nothing for everyone to fear about, saying that they and their regulators have done so much to keep Coronavirus at bay.
We are ready
“The Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has given us what we call protocols for restarting operations. We have followed that diligently. We are comfortable, we are prepared,” Capt. Ado Sanusi, managing director, Aero Contractors, told Sunday Sun.
Equally, the Chief Operating Officer of DANA Air, Obi Mbanuzuo was confident that they were fully prepared to hit the airspace again.
“We are fully prepared to hit the skies; as you may know, airlines have been working with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) for more than a month now,” he revealed.
On his part, Mr Banji Ola, head communications, Arik Air, told Sunday Sun that “we are prepared just like any other airline. We have been working with FAAN and NCAA for the past few weeks and we are fully set and ready to fly.
“All the guidelines have been met. All the protocols have been put in place by the airline,” he said.
Sam Adurogboye, general manager, Public Relations, Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) admitted that there had been collaboration of all stakeholders in the aviation industry to open up the airline business again.
“This is a great work which cuts across the entire system, from the airlines, airspace management through NIMET, NAMA, ground handlers, NAHCO, SAHCOL – everyone had a great role to play.
“From the beginning of the lockdown, we at NCAA as a regulatory body, created a platform termed COVID-19 where we tweet all manners of circulars that we have been issuing out with dates. From the first day of the lockdown, we have never had hands off from issuing circulars on what to do, like the airlines, aircraft and what they need to be doing. So, whenever they say we are good to go, it will not be difficult,” he assured.
What stakeholders have done to ensure safety
Regarding what the airlines have done to ensure safe return to the skies, Capt. Sanusi said: “We did a game off flight on Saturday which was a success.
“Both the Federal Ministry of Aviation and the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority are very comfortable with our level of preparedness. Whether they are comfortable or not, we must also conduct and fulfill all the protocols that they have asked us to do. We have engaged in training and we have concluded most of the trainings and almost all they have asked us pertaining protocols for restart have been completed. I think we are almost there; it is left for the civil aviation to give us a clean bill to go back to the sky when the airspace is re-opened.”
Mbanuzuo recalled that “NCAA issued initial guidelines to all airlines on what needed to be done; I’m just coming from the area where we are training our staff. Just call it the public health corridor; the idea is to make sure that from the time the passengers come into the system – from the time they arrive to when they leave, everything is done properly. The airport authorities themselves and the airlines know how to handle that. We have a lot of staff training; we have a good number of PPEs staff ought to have – staff on checking, staff on board the aircraft. If the passengers should go on board the airlines, how they should be checked.
“Every airline has been doing that one by one, stage by stage and Dana Air has gone through all the stages with the regulator and we are 300 per cent ready to go. We are still waiting for the regulator to let us know when to fly, although the government said as long as that is possible. We are waiting for the regulator. The regulator will clear the airline and the airports too. I think the airports are also close to being fully ready, even if it is two or three airports that will accommodate the initial flights. But we are fully ready.”
Similarly, Ola said: “You know that the aviation industry is highly regulated. All the regulations put in place by NCAA we have complied with.”
Confirming that the airlines have been working with NCAA, Adurogbeye noted that “again, when we began to plan for the reopening, we also requested for a research plan and issued a circular concerning the market so that we can achieve social distance for the passengers, crew, and workers at the various terminals. All of these are to be carried out. While our meeting continues, NCAA will submit that which will encompass all the other sectors working with one another.
“As the announcement has finally been made to start with domestic flights with five airports, we will progress and see the corporation and compliance level; thereafter, international flights might be considered.
“International flights will be something that everybody is monitoring the other. One does not open its airspace when others have not opened theirs. Others have not opened; the few that opened had to close down because of the COVID-19 surge. It is not as if we are enjoying it, we are losing revenue as an organization because we are not immune to it. It is hitting us hard and we are eager to fly again.
“The pandemic is something that dislocated everybody worldwide. Do not forget that the COVID-19 came into the country through flights, so people must understand that one must be alive before flying and doing business. Now, the question is, are we ready to fly and comply with all the directives in such a way that we can preserve our lives?”
On her part, Yakubu revealed that “FAAN held dry run stimulation exercises following the announcement of a relaxation of the lockdown at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja and Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos recently. The exercise was aimed at assessing the readiness of the airports for reopening post Covid-19. It was witnessed by a team of stakeholders led by the Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika.”
Efforts to keep COVID-19 at bay
Our survey showed that reopening the airports and the airspace is no problem, but the crux of the matter is how the passengers can be protected from COVID-19 infection.
Capt. Ado admitted that “the issue of social distancing inside a single airplane is going to be difficult because when you define physical distancing, it is limited to two metres from the next person.
“Some schools of thought are advocating that we should block the centre seat. The centre seat is normally about maximum 55 inches wide; so you are not achieving the two meters distance that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set for us to achieve in order to maintain social distancing. So, if we are not achieving the two meters as figured by WHO, there is no data to say that if you distance yourself with just 55 inches or something, you will achieve the same result of physical distancing of the two meters. That is why WHO said if you cannot achieve physical distancing, then you must wear a facemask.
“We do not want to see things based on psychology or things based on emotions and then make a decision that would affect the economy of the company and of the country in general.
“If you know that you are going to block the centre seat, then the cost of the tickets would rise; people that have disposable income to travel might not be able to travel and that would affect the airlines and they might not make money enough to stay alive.
“That would have a snowball effect on the recovery of the economy. It is very important to understand that we should make a decision driven by facts and based on time and also in conjunction with international organisation: International Civil Aviation Organisation, AIITA, and other bodies like that. So, we should not just base our decisions on psychology or emotions – that I don’t want to sit next to somebody.
“The safest place to be is inside the airplane; airlines have taken a few approaches to opening up according to the protocols issued by Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority and the three few lane approaches are very simple. One, we would try and make sure that the virus does not get to the airplane. Secondly, there shall be no index passengers on board the airplane. The rate, which the virus is been transmitted, should be reduced to zero. So, for a one-hour flight, domestically, we want to make sure that the passengers are comfortable and would have rest of mind that there won’t be transmission inside the airplane based on these three-layer approaches that we have.
“So, how do we say the virus would not enter inside the airplane? We need to do a lot of temperature checks before passengers go on board. There will be personal hygiene; there will be facemask wearing; even if somebody has common cold or malaria, he might be denied boarding.
“Surfaces on the flight will be cleaned and disinfected all the times. There will be disinfection in all the flight after passengers have disembarked from the plane.
“Even the airflow of the aircraft that comes from the top will also reduce the possibility of transmitting the Covid-19 inside the aircraft.
“The filtration setting of the aircraft is designed to have high-grade filters and we have up to four inside the aircraft. This will filter the germs and viruses out and also introduce fresh air into the atmosphere thereby reducing the risk of Covid-19.
“So, the aforementioned three-layer approach will provide the comfort the passengers should have while seated inside the aircraft. The aircraft system of transportation is the safest means of transportation and will continue to be.”
On the issue of social distancing, the Dana boss noted that “even if we leave the middle seats empty, what is government’s current recommended distance? I think it is a meter; in some places they say two meters. Even if we leave the middle seat empty, it’s not more than two centimetres, which is like half a meter. Even if you leave the seat empty, you are still not meeting the minimum requirement of that guideline.
“Secondly, the way the aircraft is ventilated, which is strategically, from top to down, we intend to minimise the risk on board to ensure that all germs get killed.”
Similarly, Ola, Arik Airline spokesman assured that “the airline will see that there is social distancing, wearing of facemask and all that.”
NCCA said it is confident that there won’t be any incident when flights resume, noting that the Air Peace’s safety record amid the pandemic gives further assurance of safety.
Adurogboye said: “The good news is that some of our airlines like Air Peace have been involved in international evacuation of nationals and they have been doing it well. There have not been any untoward incidence, no infection here or there and that is how we will do it to our Nigerian passengers and travelers.
“For all our airlines, as long as we are safely taking precautionary measures, we are good to go.”
FAAN as a regulator also assured through Yakubu of its commitment to ensuring safety and security of travellers.
It said: “The core function of FAAN is to provide physical infrastructure for seamless facilitation of air transportation. The post COVID-19 era specifically relates to the health and safety aspect of this core function.”