By Chinelo Obogo, [email protected] 07064781119
The astronomical rise in air fares for domestic travel has become a very serious cause for concern for passengers. Presently, all the domestic airlines have doubled their fares on most of the routes across the country. For instance, one-way trip to Abuja which used to cost a minimum of N25,000 for economy seats or even less, depending on the time the ticket is purchased, now costs as high as N50,000 and in some cases, N60,000 for the same class of tickets.
Captain Musa Nuhu, who is the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the regulatory agency, says, in this interview, that the reason for the hike is that demand is higher than supply and also, the scarcity of foreign exchange (forex) has made it impossible for airlines to operate their fleet at full capacity.
Hike fares, forex scarcity
The Minister of Aviation has been to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)and he is doing what he can about the scarcity of Forex. The minister has been fighting for the airlines since when I was working in his office. To be honest, I can make a strong case to consider these people, but we can help ourselves by supporting the MROs that the government is trying to do. That will significantly reduce the amount of forex airlines would need. If we can do those things in Nigeria, not only that we will reduce the outflow of forex, it will also create employment for us. It is a double win for the country.
For the fares, it has to do with the economics of demand and supply. Don’t forget because of this forex difficulties, airlines are not operating their fleet at full capacity. That also has impact. If one of the airlines is out of the system, you try to fill that gap. That will put extra demands on the other routes.
Earlier, you mentioned the issue of not using the right fleet. Yes, but the trend I see people going for Embraer, CRJ, ATR. So, there is a paradigm shift. People are beginning to realise you can’t use Boeing 737 aircraft for short flights. I can see Air Peace had got two E-195 and he said on the long term, he is going to replace all its B737. United Nigeria is using Embraer 145.Green Africa is using ATR 42, 72.
There is one that has started processing its documents, he wants to use Embraer 145. Chanchangi wants to come back and they want to use ATR. They are planning to come back. The demand is there. The thinking is changing because this B737 business is not working for us. It is going to take a while. The economics is forcing the change. It is a positive change in the industry.
Airlines springing up
How many passengers travelled domestically before COVID-19? What percentage of Nigeria is that? If it is six or five per cent of the Nigerian population, that tells you that Nigeria is under-travelled. There is a huge market there. Nigerian market is not mature enough. There is a huge opportunity there for the Nigerian market to grow. That is why you see that many airlines are coming up in the country. We have Green Africa Airways, NG Eagle and so many other airlines coming up. I am sure that Green Africa Airways, NG Eagle are the next to fly. The market is there. It is economics.
Unfortunately, because of the condition of the roads, a lot of people prefer flying by air. So, the demand is growing and that is why you see many airlines coming up. I can tell you that out of the nine million that are said to be travelling within Nigeria, only probably one million people are flying regularly. So, maybe only one or two million people travel in Nigeria, in a population of 200 million. It is still a virgin market. If we uphold our policies and strategies, we will make a friendly-environment in the industry and it will grow. That is why in the Ministry and with aviation roadmap, they want to do things like aircraft leasing company, MROs which are some of the things that make maintenance cost. You know airlines go to Europe for maintenance, but when we have am MRO, it creates employment and you just rolled in your aircraft and do your maintenance in there in Naira.
As a regulatory body, we take the issue of safety seriously. However, before we take action, we must have concrete evidence. We see what is happening and we do a risk based analysis and we decide to take action. This is because grounding an airline has serious repercussions. Both on the availability of service to the public and also to the finances and reputation of the airline. I don’t think we were slow.
When we reached a point that we were not happy, we called a Zoom meeting. I could have taken the decision on my own, but I am a human being and I know I have my shortcomings. So, I called my entire team. We had a Zoom meeting for about four to five hours before we came to that decision to suspend their operations. I want to say here clearly that it is not a punitive measure. It is our responsibility and duty to guide and work with the operators and assist them to ensure that they are in compliance with our regulations.
Our team met with Azman’s team and we told them what the issues were. We had written them before that and they responded. We had a virtual meeting and they went through each of the issues one by one. I must tell you the response we had from Azman has been very encouraging and very positive. They are taking all what we have explained to them. Now they understand it is even better for them to improve their business model. I have seen a shift and I can guarantee you that by the time Azman complies with all what we want, the public will see a different airline.
We are not here to kill anybody or to ruin any airline, but to guide them to operate safely, efficiently and to provide the necessary services to the travelling public. I just received a very impressive response from them concerning what they have done. We are going to start serious training for their people next week.
Where we find gaps, they have already started employing people and they are really working and cooperating. Honestly, I am very happy and feel very relieved at their response to us.
I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there when the airline was approved. I came and met them, but I think it is my responsibility as the DG, when I see there is a mistake, I have to rectify it, which is exactly what we are working at, and trying to rectify whatever might have been done wrong in the past.
Also, NCAA is an organisation too in transition. Honestly, this Azman incident told us a lot about ourselves, areas that we might have found some deficiencies and we are trying to fill it and make some changes to make the organisation much more effective and efficient. We have had issues with some airlines, they came and we sat down them. We discussed with them and we resolved it.
Unfortunately, in this particular case when somebody goes to the public and impugns the credibility of an organisation, we needed to defend our actions. What I want you to understand is that it is not we as a person and not even the DG, it’s not NCAA, but Nigeria’s reputation that is being damaged internationally. If NCAA is somehow perceived as a corrupt organisation, believe me that all the operators and aviation businesses in Nigeria will find it difficult going to charter or lease aircraft. It makes the whole business much more difficult for us. It damages the industry, which is why we had to come out and explain to the world what happened.
We haven’t had any airline accident in the last five years and there will not be any during my tenure. We want to bring it out to make the system much safer. When you have these incidents, you use your equipment much more, instead of grounding the airlines because they have incidents, they do more flights and system becomes more efficient, effective to the benefits of the travelling public.
Air Peace incident
We work hand in hand with the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB). When there is an incident, AIB-N goes to investigate. If it is a serious incident or accident, they deal with it. If it is not a serious incident, they hand it over to NCAA to inspect it, but when they do their investigation and they are okay, they hand it over to NCAA to work with the airline to ensure that the aircraft is put back to an airworthy condition before it can fly. AIB doesn’t do that. That is our responsibility. They were happy. They were working with it and they handed it over to us.
As regards the promotion of general aviation policy, we have the Civil Aviation Act before the National Assembly. Hopefully, it will be passed into law. So, once that is done and we know what the new NCAA mandate is, we will do a stakeholders’ meeting for review of our regulations. I think we need to de-clutter and unbundle our regulations so that the requirements from general aviation is different from the requirements of the airlines. They are not the same risk. General Aviation could be chartered flights, agric spraying, small tourism aircraft, ambulance and others.
There are so many areas of general aviation, but right now, regulations are bundled. Somebody flying corporate and small plane carrying 10 people and you are asking for the same requirements from a Boeing 777 going to Dubai. It doesn’t make sense. So, when we unbundle those regulations, we believe it is going to stimulate the general aviation part of the industry.