As a meteorologist with over two decades of experience, Mark Ubam, who was on a Houston – London – Lagos flight was told that the aircraft would be diverted to Accra, Ghana due to poor weather condition and its attendant low visibility at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos. He understood perfectly the danger in attempting to land visually under adverse weather conditions and was grateful that the weather was good enough in Accra to allow the flight land safely.
Arriving the Kotoka International Airport, Accra, Ubam, met three other Nigerian passengers who were impatient with the British carrier alternative plans to lodge them in a hotel pending when weather conditions improve in Lagos. The three, have sealed a deal with a cab to drive them to Lagos and they asked if Ubam could be a part of the road trip. As Ubam contemplated other alternatives to the over eight hours journey to Lagos from Accra, he was informed that it was not just about the weather; but that the Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) at the Lagos International Airport are not also functional.
He was told that for the past four to six days, hundreds of passengers had been left stranded at the Lagos International Airport owing to the absence of the requisite ILS to guide and assist pilots land at night and at 1,000 meters visibility. But with more international airlines, the majority with passengers from Europe, Middle-East and America heading to Lagos having to divert to Accra, Ubam began to notice something unusual: flights between Abuja and Accra continue uninterrupted. And strangely, some of the airlines diverting from Lagos to Abuja have multiple designations granted them by the Nigerian government. Ubam wondered within himself: why they are not diverting to Abuja instead as an alternate airport where they have the permit to land also?
“There is something that you cannot completely rule out of this – a gang up to make Nigeria a laughing stock,” he said.
“They simply made use of the defect at the Lagos Airport to make a laughing stock of the Nigerian aviation industry in the global market. It is bad publicity for Nigeria when Abuja is there. After two days, what’s the emergency in a snag at the Lagos airport for anyone to divert to Accra with all the inconveniences to passengers. If they want to land in Abuja, no one will certainly deny them that right,” Ubam said. How sad it is to note that at the end of the seven days of having to divert, cancel or delay flights into Lagos Airport, the Nigerian industry is believed to have lost an estimated N4. 5billion with attendant frustrations of hundreds of passengers. Not even a late plea by the Federal Government for the airlines to fly instead into Abuja was acceded to.
“When you have such a huge market as we have in Nigeria, and ironically more than 96 per cent of flights carrying your own citizens are operated by foreign airlines, you become vulnerable to a gang-up and sabotage. And this embarrassing trend will never end unless government and relevant regulatory institutions deliberately assist the local airline industry activate dormant Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASAs) to challenge foreign airlines, especially on lucrative routes where they operate as monopolies. It’s easy to dictate in situations like this when in your own hub, it is your own carrier that operates as a dominant airline. The losses would have been mitigated,” Ubam said.
London, New York, Mumbai, Johannesburg routes
Without doubt, President Muhamadu Buhari’s greatest achievement in the aviation sector remains the zero-accident rate in commercial or civil aviation in the past five years. It is a goal that Buhari made after he was sworn in for the first term in 2015 and it had paid off as opposed to the regime of air crashes that characterised the country between 2002 and 2013. Although, terminal buildings in the country’s 22 airports remain a sorry sight, the government, yearly, remains firm in its commitment to boosting critical safety infrastructure and regulations for airlines and airports. But there is the need to go beyond safety to unlocking the industry’s potential to boost its GDP contribution to the economy.
Indeed, the government has to set fresh targets beyond safety infrastructure to getting local carriers to fly international routes as top priority this year. The government should consider the seeming futility of investing massive funds to develop airport, navigational, regulatory facilities solely to the benefit of international airlines who exploit Nigerians with exorbitant airfares and other abuses who won’t also domicile the monies they make in Nigerian banks.
It is instructive to note how airfares on the lucrative Lagos-Abuja-Dubai route has crashed since July 2019 following the launch of Air Peace Airlines operations on that route. Throughout the Christmas/New Year festivities. Nigerians were shocked that economy and business class tickets that usually went for as high as N450, 000 to N1. 6million came as low as N300,000 and N700, 000 by the Nigerian airline even as dignity, respect and a sense of pride were restored to Nigerian passengers.
“The Federal Government has a duty to leverage the services of the airline that has acquired three Boeing 777 aircraft and that has gained the experience in international operations on the Lagos – Dubai route to set a new target in 2020 by reciprocating BASAs on those lucrative routes where Nigerians over the years have been shortchanged by foreign airlines,” said travel agent, Frank Mbonu. “There is no better time than now to get the Nigerian carrier resume flights into the UK, US, South Africa, India, Israel, and China routes which were at one point or another operated successfully by Nigeria Airways and other local airlines,” he added.
There is no need overstating the losses to the Nigerian economy with the absence of a local airline operating into London, New York, Johannesburg, Tel-Aviv, Paris, Mumbai and China. One only needs to consider the estimated $3billion lost annually in capital flight to foreign airlines like British Airways, Delta Airlines, South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Etihad, Qatar, Emirates, Air France who enjoy a monopoly on these routes with no reciprocity from Nigeria. Retaining a greater percentage of the $3billion lost as capital flight would in no small measure boost the government’s aspirations of diversifying its stream of income and improving earnings from the non-oil sector. But there are benefits, like driving down cost of tickets on these routes where on each of the foreign carrier, Nigerian passengers account for more than 95 per cent of the passengers flying.
Recently, Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, recounted his experience with the British Airways manager for Nigeria when he sought to know why airfares from Lagos and Abuja to London were more expensive than from Accra, Ghana. “What the manager told me was that Nigerians can afford it,” Sikira said. The response was a subtle way of reiterating the power of a monopolist. It is a fact stressed by the Chairman of Air Peace, Mr. Allen Onyema, at a recent press briefing when he said: ”the day our airline begins to fly into London, we will crash the fares to be barest minimum. They said the same about for Dubai, and today, Nigerians are surprised that fares can be as low as N600,000 to N700,00, for business class tickets.”
It would be a lofty idea if foreign airlines monopoly on the London, New York, Johannesburg routes is broken in 2020. And there is the age-long dream of opening up direct flights between Nigeria, India, China, and Israel to facilitate trade, investment, academic, religious and diplomatic relations. Yearly, hundreds of Nigerians and expatriates are forced to fly into these countries through flights from Lagos with layovers mostly in Addis Ababa, Dubai, Nairobi, Doha, and Abu Dhabi. This trend cannot be allowed to continue forever as an insurmountable challenge. The good thing is that Air Peace currently has these international routes in the pipeline. Unlocking them would ease the plight of hundreds of Nigerians who do business, school, undertake medical tourism and pilgrimage to China, India, and Israel through connecting flights.
It would also create direct and indirect jobs for Nigerians as additional hands would be needed by the airline on these routes. The local banking, insurance, catering, cleaning, hoteliers and travel agents would also generate more income.
There is no need for the Federal Government to keep waiting of such a time it is able to launch a national carrier before activating these dormant routes. The long wait since 2015 has been at the expense of the Nigerian air travellers.
As the popular saying goes, when you don’t have the desirable, make use of the available, and if a local operator like Air Peace has proven to have the capacity to operate these routes, nothing should stop the government from working with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and its foreign missions to facilitate the airline’s aspirations to fly into London, New York, Johannesburg and Tel-Aviv in 2020. It could even provide the necessary test-run in the quest to turn the Lagos and Abuja international airports into hubs for the West Africa market.