By Chinelo Obogo [email protected] 07064781119
Following the diplomatic row between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Federal Government over the approval of slots to Air Peace to fly to Dubai, the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Capt. Musa Nuhu, has said the agency is working on introducing ‘slot’ system into bilateral agreements so that the country won’t be shortchanged.
Nuhu, who spoke to aviation reporters recently, said that mistakes have been made in the past that put domestic airlines that want to operate internationally in a weak position but going forward, Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) will include slot systems. This means that if any country insists that Nigerian airlines must pay for slots before they can operate, that country’s national carrier would also be made to pay for slots before operating in any of Nigeria’s international airports.
Nigeria, UAE row
Under the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) pre-Covid-19, Emirates was operating two flights daily to Lagos, making 14 and another daily flight to Abuja, making it a total 21 flights weekly and under the same BASA arrangement, Etihad was making seven flights weekly to Nigeria, making UAE with 28 weekly flights into Nigeria, but unfortunately, because of the capacity of Nigerian airlines, only one Nigeria carrier out of the designated airlines was operating to UAE and was actually operating to Sharjah because it had difficulties getting slots and other things to operate into Dubai.
But, Sharjah is one of the Emirates covered on the BASA. Air Peace has been operating to Sharjah since 2018 or 2019 and it was doing three flights weekly. So, when Covid-19 came, all flights stopped and operations resumed a few months later and was also disrupted due to some protocols by the UAE, which the Federal Government felt was discriminatory and Emirates was stopped from operating into Nigeria.
It took negotiations for the flights to resume and after nine months, flights between the two countries resumed. So, Emirates sent a winter schedule, which was agreed pre-Covid; 14 to Lagos and seven to Abuja weekly. Air Peace went to Sharjah and wanted to resume only three flights weekly because of their capacity, but initially, the UAE GCAA claimed that Air Peace has been given two slots and kept telling us stories. After few days, they came out to give only one slot for Air Peace into Sharjah and claimed inadequate slots for their action. They said they cannot keep three slots for Air Peace, which has stopped flying into their country. Meanwhile, Emirates has stopped flying into Nigeria, yet we still gave them the 21 slots they requested for and here we are, we are asking for three and they are giving us stories.
So, I reported to the minister. And the minister said if they are willing to give us just one slot, we should give them only one slot, which was exactly what we did. That is justice. In UAE, we have the GCAA and each of the Emirates has its own CAA. Later, the Dubai CAA wrote to Air Peace and told the airline that it has seven slots reserved for it at Dubai Airport. So, the CEO of Air Peace, Mr. Allen Onyema, showed the letter to the Minister and we said Air Peace is designated to outside Nigeria based on the flight rules and Emirates is designated by the UAE Government under the BASA arrangement and we concluded that is what we are going to do and we told them to write to Nigeria officially.
The government needs to protect Nigerian businesses and Air Peace is one of the designated carriers from Nigeria. If we allow other airlines to come and take all the juicy slots, we are shooting ourselves in the leg.
Nigeria working on operating slot system
We are working on that and it is going to be tit-for-tat. Let me use an example and I am not saying that is what we are going to do, but just as an example. If a Nigerian airline is going to United Kingdom, and they insist the airline must buy slots, then any British airline that is coming into Nigeria will need to pay for slots too. It is tit-for-tat. If you tell me a particular airline from Nigeria cannot go to Heathrow because you cannot get slots, then, their airline too cannot come to Lagos because of slot issues. If you tell me a particular airline from Nigeria must pay, for instance, 100,000 pounds to operate to Heathrow, then, their own airline will have to pay same amount of money to operate to Lagos. It is going to be reciprocity. We cannot hide under the issue of slots to give unfair commercial advantages to foreign airlines over Nigerian airlines. We had made mistakes in the past, we have learnt from our mistakes and we are going to correct the mistakes.
Lagos airport was built for less than 300,000 passengers in 1979 and the airport is doing more than 8 million passengers annually now and you are telling them your airport is doing above capacity. Lagos airport is doing far above 1,000 per cent capacity. It is no longer acceptable. No one should come here and give us stories.
Aviation industry in 2021
We certainly have recovered from Covid-19 pandemic and have exceeded the pre-Covid-19 level. Nigerian airlines have been getting clients. Right now, I have about 10 to 12 aircraft on wet lease to fill in the gap of the demands of the system. So, the industry has done fairly well. The domestic industry is growing in a fantabulous rate. We have given a lot of Air Operators’ Certificates (AOC) and we still have about 15 in the pipeline. We are working on it. We have airports popping up all over the places and a lot of maintenance organisations coming up. For us to achieve the growth we have now, we (agencies, ministries, stakeholders and the media) are doing something right that is building investors’ confidence in the system. The investors are willing to put their money in the system and grow the industry.
We will continue that way and hopefully, we want to get to a place where aviation plays very significant contributions to the GDP on a short and medium terms; at least 5 per cent. Also, the growth is a bit stretching the infrastructure. So, sometimes, clogs are created here and there because the system has been stretched.
Covid-19 protocol compliance
Generally, globally, people are getting Covid-19 fatigue. If you go out, you see a lot of people not wearing their face masks, except in airports, airlines and other places where we keep educating people that Covid-19 is real and it’s growing into various variants. It is something we just have to consistently do and ensure compliance.
On the issue of safety inspectors for NCAA, we are seeking approval to employ more technical staff because there are due administrative processes, which we must comply with and follow. We are working on it and we are making a significant progress.
Apart from the ministry and the minister that are supporting us, the Aviation Committees of the National Assembly through their chairmen are supporting us. We have explained to them the challenges and the difficulties we are facing. And they too have been assisting us in a way through legislative action to help us resolve some of the challenges we are facing. We are a government organisation and we must comply with the Public Service Rules in all we do.
Also, some of our ICAO standards and recommended practices said that “NCAA should be a competitive employer.” What that is saying is that the salaries we pay our workers must be competitive in the industry.
Here, we are a government organisation and the industry is privately run. So, you can understand how our hands are tied, but we try and see how we can work through within the confines of the laws to close that gap so that we can attract more personnel to come and work with us.