Indigenous carrier, Aero Contractors Limited, over the week, inaugurated it’s aircraft maintenance and repair hanger at the local terminal of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja, Lagos.
The facility, designed and equipped specifically to undertake Comprehensive Checks (C-checks) on the Boeing 737-500 classic aircraft, is not just the only functional MRO in Nigeria, but also in the West African sub-region.
It’s inauguration, which came following the successful C-check conducted by a team of Nigerian aeronautical engineers on a Boeing 737-500 classic with registration number 5N-BLG, comes as a source of big relief to airline owners in Nigeria.
The last time a C-check was carried out in Nigeria was about 14 years ago, and that was also by a team of Nigerian engineers on a Nigerian Airways aircraft. Sadly, the liquidation of Nigerian Airways in 2002 did not just signal the demise of the airline, but also the dearth of the airline’s Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility – the only one of such facility in the country then. This was followed by hundreds of local aircraft engineering manpower who migrated offshore in search of greener pastures.
Thereafter, domestic airlines that sprung up after Nigerian Airways had to ferry their aircraft to MROs in Europe and America for routine checks and maintenances, mostly in foreign currencies (forex) sourced at exorbitant cost. It cost a minimum of $1.8 million to do a C-check on an aircraft.
Without doubt, the losses, owing to the absence of an MRO in Nigeria, were monumental. The Boeing 737 aircraft forms the bulk of aircraft type operated by local airlines in Nigeria. In fact, experts attributed the collapse of the local airline industry to the exorbitant cost of maintaining aircraft abroad. Minister of State for Aviation, Mr. Hadi Sirika, who spoke at the event estimated that the country was losing over $90 million annually in capital flight as C-checks were done overseas by local airline owners.
Said Sirika: “It is noteworthy that Boeing 737 aircraft are the most common aircraft fleet operated in Nigeria by most indigenous airlines prior to now, and in the lifespan of other administrations, Nigeria experienced huge capital flight of nothing less than $1.8 million to $3 million per Boeing aircraft that left our shores for C-checks and there are more than 30 of such aircraft operating; so you do the arithmetic.”
But the absence of such a facility also meant Nigeria over the last 14 years had lost the opportunity to grow it’s indigenous manpower aeronautical engineering base. A decade without a facility for a nation’s young and graduate aeronautical engineers to put into practice theories learnt in schools is certainly a loss that cannot be quantified.
The Aero Contractors’ maintenance facility therefore holds the prospect of saving local airlines millions of dollars spent annually on C-checks abroad, just as young Nigerian aircraft engineers now have a facility to grow their capabilities. Speaking at the occasion, an elated Chief Executive Officer of Aero Contractors, Capt. Ado Sanusi, described conducting aircraft C-check in Nigeria as a huge milestone for the aviation sector.
“The tangible deliverables to be derived from patronising Aero facility include saving foreign exchange, getting a quicker aircraft turn-around time, enriching Nigerian technical expertise and knowledge base and strengthening the Nigerian aviation sector as the regional and sub-regional hub for aviation activities,” said Sanusi.
But it is not only the Nigerian market that stands to benefit from the Aero MRO. In the entire West African sub-region, there is no aircraft maintenance facility for C-checks. According to the former president of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Mr. Isaac Balami, airlines in West Africa (excluding Nigeria) spend about $1 billion annually on C-checks on foreign maintenance yards.
And that, in fact, opens up a huge market for the Aero MRO, provided its managers know what to do to attract businesses to the facility. In this regard, there must be deliberate and sustained efforts to market the facility to airline owners in neighbouring countries of Ghana, Benin, Togo, Senegal, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea, among others. It was a thing of joy to hear pilots and regulatory officials who flew the first Boeing 737 that passed the Aero C-check reporting that they had experienced only one snag on the aircraft, which was promptly fixed thereafter.
As one of the pilots later explained, the minimum snag (technical flaw) that is normally reported or experienced in an aircraft that is flown immediately a C-check is completed, even in the best of foreign MROs, is about 10. Experiencing only one snag therefore was, in fact, a big testimony to the competence and proficiency of the Nigerian engineers that worked on the aircraft.
Sustaining existing customers and wooing new ones would mean maintenance standards are not compromised by Aero in the years ahead. It also means the continuous investment in the training and re-training of its engineers in the best schools and facilities found in any part of the world.
Free Trade Zone status
It was learnt that in the course of conducting its first C-check on a Boeing 737, Aero suffered avoidable delays with Customs clearance of specially imported tools required for the maintenance job on the aircraft. This trend is a big disadvantage to efforts to position the Aero MRO as a world-class facility that would mop up the West African market and boost Nigeria’s foreign earnings.
It therefore becomes necessary for the Ministry of Aviation to work out new modalities with the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) to ensure the easy passage and clearance of tools specifically imported for aircraft maintenance. That would greatly help in speeding up the completion of aircraft maintenance at the Aero facility. Nothing excites a customer like the on-time completion of his job. The next thing required to grow the Aero MRO is for the Federal Government to grant it a Free Trade Zone status at the Nigerian Export Processing Zone Authority (NEPZA). Such a status, if granted anytime this year (2018), would ease the maintenance turn-around time at the Aero MRO, which is key to building customer confidence in patronising the facility.