Although, the history of Nigeria’s aviation industry dates back to a 1925 successful flight by a three-man crew on a DH 9A aircraft owned by the Royal Air Force to Kano polo field from Khartoum, Sudan, it was not until the post colonial era that the Federal Government acquired 100 per cent equity in Nigeria Airways in 1961 that it started reaping the gains of the industry.
According to analyst, Capt. Dele Ore, Nigeria Airways acted as the catalyst for the growth and development of modern aviation industry. Outside Lagos and kano, which had airports that also operated international flights, the government was compelled to establish local airports in major cities and to also invest in navigational, maintenance, allied facilities and manpower development in the 60s,70s,80s, and mid 90, majorly to aid the national carrier.
Mention must also be made of the establishment of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT) in Zaria, Kaduna State in 1964, which no doubt, contributed quite significantly to the manpower development of aviation industry. In fact, it is to the joint credit of NCAT and Nigeria Airways that the country churned out the best of pilots and aeronautical engineers that became sought after all over the world between the 60s and late 90s. Aviation not only grew Nigeria’s manpower capabilities, but it also contributed to growth in trade and commerce.
International airports, notably in Calabar, Kano, Lagos and Port-Harcourt, became leading cargo centres, as air-freight business was kept alive by a combination of shippers, foreign airlines, leading courier firms (such as UPS and DHL) and handling companies (such as NAHCO and SAHCOL).
At 59, there is no denying the fact that the industry has grown more than it was in the 60s in both infrastructure and passenger patronage.
For instance, at present, Nigeria boasts of over 35 aerodromes, comprising 22 federal airports, four state government airports, and other private airstrips and helipads. There are also about nine private commercial airlines flying local and regional routes. And it is also not uncommon to see Nigerians flying within and outside the country in private jets wholly-owned by them or chartered.
In the area of job creation, aviation supports about 50,000 direct jobs, and another 50,000 indirect jobs,among them caterers, cleaners, cab owners, hotel workers, and travel agents among others .
In 2017, Nigerian travel agents reported earnings in excess of about $1.4billion.
The Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, which serves as the country’s aviation hub, over the last five decades has attracted notable European, African, Middle East and American carriers with massive contributions in royalties, taxes and airport charges to the national coffers.
Moreover, these developments have seen more Nigerians traveling by air as indicated by a recent data by the Consumer Protection Directorate of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), for 2018 showing 14.2 million passengers flew through Nigerian airports.
At independence in 1960, it would have been impossible to record one tenth of that figure given that the industry was at its infancy then.
Indeed these feats speak volumes of the growth trajectory the industry had taken in the last 59 years after Nigeria’s political independence from British colonial rule.
The low points
Trafficking over 14million passengers annually through Nigerian airports might appear significant when viewed against the 9 million figure recorded in 2010 and 11.2million of 2017, but not when considered against the backdrop that the bulk of the nation’s international passengers are still being carried by foreign airlines.
With a population estimated at over 200million, Nigerians are known to be in love with traveling, with reasons ranging from trade, commerce, education, religious, medical, tourism, and sports.
Sadly, out of the 78 bilateral air services agreements (BASA) the country signed with other countries, it has only been able to reciprocate its agreement with the UAE where Air Peace flies into Sharjah. The other routes are left for foreign airlines to monopolise.
According to the Chairman of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Capt. Nogie Meggison, the country loses about $3billion annually in capital flight to foreign airlines. Indeed Nigeria’s presence is only felt within the West and Central african regional routes where Air Peace, Arik, and Medview airlines ply.
Without a doubt, just as its launch took aviation to its peak, the liquidation of Nigerian Airways by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003 was akin to an aircraft nosediving towards a crash as taking Nigeria Airways out marked the downturn in the history of aviation in Nigeria.
Although, the industry had been liberalised to allow greater participation of private airlines, the absence of a state-owned carrier became felt not just by its hundreds of loyal passengers, but also by the larger business community as government began showing passive interest in investments in airports, navigational, and aircraft maintenance facilities, hitherto done to support the operation of national carrier.
The rot in infrastructure and regulations were soon to be noticed in the spate of air crashes witnessed between 2005 and 2013 following the liquidation of Nigerian Airways. It took spirited efforts by the Goodluck Jonathan government to restore confidence in the flying public through policies that saw new investments in airport remodeling across the country and insistence on adherence to safety regulations. That government, to its credit, also fought to upgrade the country to category one (CAT-1) status and followed it up with an ICAO certification for the Lagos and Abuja international airports.
But greater damage had been done with the demise of the national carrier, and failure by successive governments to float a new national carrier. At present, there is the dearth of seasoned Nigerian pilots (men who can mount aircraft as Pilot-in-Command). Where Nigerian Airways had the requisite flights and routes to provide the requisite platform for young cadets to be employed and to gain the requisite flying hours to grow into becoming Captains, existing private airlines are battling with low aircraft fleet challenges and creating fewer employment opportunities for fresh pilots. At present, there are about 500 unemployed pilots in Nigeria. Allegations of high level corruption continue to rock the industry (among government and private operators) crippling efforts to gain tangible dividends from investments. In the last 20 years, about 50 private sector established airlines have been closed down, with many not marking their 10th anniversary.
But at the root of these collapses is the poor corporate governance culture of owners and multiple taxation by government regulators. The lowest point of the industry perhaps remains its lean 0.6 per cent contribution to national GDP despite government investments estimated at over $30billion in the last 59 years.
According to the President of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agents (NANTA), Mr. Bankole Bernard, efforts to unlock the country’s aviation sector potential to contribute significantly to national GDP would remain a mirage unless aviation and tourism sectors are merged and operated as a single minister in line with global practices.
The government must pursue the establishment of a national carrier to its logical conclusion, even with a minority government equity as canvassed by many stakeholders. In the same vein, policies must be enunciated to support the growth and prosperity of existing airlines.
m sectors are merged and operated as a single minister as obtainable worldover. The government must pursue the establishment of a national carrier to a logical conclusion, even with a minority government equity as canvassed by many stakeholders. In the same vein, policies must be enunciated to support the growth and prosperity of existing airlines.