The operation of any successful aviation industry is usually premised on the strict adherence to or implementation of the safety procedures, manuals and processes put in place by local and global regulatory institutions saddled with the supervision of the industry.
Without doubt, the aviation industry is getting more complex, great thanks to the advances being made in the various fields of technology, which have tended to cut down on the number of jobs hitherto performed manually. These days, most aircraft are on autopilot, just as airports are run on very complex machines that have replaced a chunk of its human workforce. But does that imply the non-importance of human workers in the aviation sector? And is Nigeria really prepared to adjust to the global trend where technologically minded men and women are manning core positions in the industry? Does the country have such human capabilities? Certainly not!
Safety and human capital
Irrespective of the level of sophistication of the technology deployed in the running of the airports, runways, airlines, and allied facilities, including the use of robots, the role of the human workforce remains most pivotal or critical in the quest to ensure a safe industry. This fact can really be appreciated if an incompetent, disgruntled or unhappy worker is handed the job of the supervision or operation of the best technological device in an airport environment. Disaster certainly looms, for such a worker can easily compromise on the integrity of such a device. It therefore follows that for safety to be achieved in the industry, a higher premium must be placed on the training, retraining, better remuneration and general welfare of aviation sector workers.
As hundreds of aviation sector workers gathered at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, to mark the Workers Day on May 1, 2018 (last Tuesday), most stakeholders who spoke at the event stressed the need for employers to take proactive steps to create the right working conditions for workers if the Nigerian sky is to be kept safe for the flying public. In fact, in the last five years, the Nigerian sky has remained very safe with no air accident recorded (the last being the Associated Airline crash which took place in October 2015) and no one can take away the credit from the men and women in Nigeria’s regulatory, airports, air traffic control towers, ground handling firms, security, intelligence, immigration, customs, police, and airlines working assiduously to maintain a zero accident industry. It is a feat applauded by global industry regulators like the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
In the last two years, it, however, appears that the plight of the Nigerian aviation sector worker, rather than improving is getting worse. Although, efforts have been made by the government in making investments to improve the state of infrastructure at Nigerian airports, the industry, however, thrives primarily on viable airlines, and this is where the snag lies. Experts say one functional aircraft on the air can keep about 50 workers active. At present, Nigeria lacks viable domestic airlines. Existing carriers like Aero Contractors, Arik Air, and Medview Airline are shrinking in aircraft fleet size and declaring hundreds of staff redundant. Some foreign airlines are either converting Nigerian workers into casual staff or laying them off in preference for their nationals owing to Nigeria’s weak labour laws, which fail to protect the local workforce.
President of Air Transport Senior Staff Services of Nigeria (ATSSSAN) Mr. Ahmadu Illitrus, addressing workers gathered for the May Day rally held at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, alleged that AMCON was not pumping in the requisite funds it had promised to revive Arik Air and Aero Contractors, the two airlines under its receivership.
“Aero has some prospects but the management of AMCON is not willing to inject money into the airline. The unions are in precarious situation but we don’t want to shutdown the airline,” said Illitrus. He also alleged that following the takeover of Arik Air by AMCON workers retrenched were yet to be paid their severance packages. At present, about 500 Nigerian pilots are currently out of job, according to the Chairman of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Capt. Nogie Meggison. Daily Sun learnt that 500 jobs could have been lost in the industry in the last one year. Analyst, Capt. Dele Ore, also pointed out that a greater number of the professionals in the industry are aging and no investment is made in the training and hiring of new ones.
The future looks bleak and the absence of a functional national carrier has not helped workers’ cause either.
How to boost human capacity in aviation
Nigeria’s aviation sector requires a local content law akin to that operating in the oil and gas industry, if it hopes to cut down on most of the challenges faced by its local workforce. Foreign airlines are having a field day flying into Nigeria’s various airports unchallenged as Nigeria lacks a national carrier to reciprocate its over 88 Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASA) signed with foreign airlines. A local content law that makes it mandatory for all foreign airlines operating into Nigeria to have a Nigerian pilot and cabin crew on its staff would therefore go a long way in creating new jobs for Nigerian professionals and also cutting down some of the capital flight linked to the foreign carriers. There must also be a law that abolishes the hiring of expatriates by private airline operators to positions that can be filled by Nigerians.
The global aviation and aerospace industries are experiencing rapid growth in recent years. Nigeria has to make a conscious decision to train the men and women that will take full advantage of growth opportunities in the future. In this regard, there must be a synergy between the industry and academia to better train talent and meet the talent shortage in the industry. Nigerian airlines, airports management and regulatory agencies, have to work together along the entire value chain to achieve this goal.
Also, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) should begin to focus more on the financial regulation and welfare of local airline workers just as it is doing with safety regulations. Most local airlines don’t last up to their 10th anniversary not for safety reasons, but rather the financial recklessness of their managers and the poor treatment of workers. Until its takeover by AMCON, poorly paid cabin crew and ground handling staff of Arik Air were alleged to be colluding with or facilitating the smooth operation of drug barons, human traffickers and stowaway on the airline’s aircraft to overseas countries.