Five airlines restart flights amid strict protocol

Uncertainty over bailout funds, onboard physical distancing
• Travel experts project a 30% load factor
• ‘New normal’ awaits travellers, no food in-flight

Barring last-minute changes, at least five of the nine local commercial airlines will this morning take to the skies in a restart of scheduled flight services following three months of COVID-19 lockdown.

The staggered resumption, beginning with the Lagos-Abuja route today, will serve as a test-case for flight operations in the COVID-19 era. Other routes into the remaining four of the six designated airports will also open, beginning from this weekend.

However, the first phase is not without uncertainties, because the Federal Government has not released the N27 billion bailout fund it promised the sector. More so, the controversial directive on vacant middle seats and less than 70 per cent capacity for all carriers has still not been resolved.

About eight operating carriers had in late March closed operations following a massive slump in passenger traffic and various restrictions by Federal and State governments in an effort to curtail the spread of coronavirus.

Following the heavy cost of prolonged closure and new safety measures for the COVID-19 era, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, recently announced that domestic flights would resume on July 8. Sirika said only the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja and the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos would commence operations today.

The Kano, Port Harcourt, Owerri, and Maiduguri airports will reopen to flights on July 11, while other airports across the country will join from July 15.

The aviation industry is the fastest and safest means of crisscrossing the nooks and crannies of the country. Though it currently contributes about 0.8 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it has the potential to be a major contributor to the economy at full capacity.

Checks by The Guardian showed that five of the airlines were already marketing airfares for the resumption of flights today. They are Aero Contractors, Air Peace, Arik Air, Dana Air, and Ibom Air.

While Med-View Airlines Plc remains grounded, others including Overland Airways, have expressed readiness to begin operations on July 15.

The Public Affairs’ General Manager of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Sam Adurogboye, confirmed that all the scheduled carriers, except one, had been cleared in accordance to compliance with the COVID-19 safety protocol.

Many private charter operators were, however, denied resumption approvals over alleged non-compliance with new safety regulations.

The NCAA in a memo to the affected operators, among others, suspended the Specs Part G of the Air Operator’s Certificate of Sky Power Express Airways Nig Limited. Affected were eight aircraft that had been grounded “pending a full audit of your organisation and compliance with all the relevant Nigerian Civil Aviation Regulations”.

Other airlines, whose aircraft are affected by the audit include Jedidiah Air, OmniBlu, West Link Airlines, NestOil, Izy Air and Jet Support Services.

Some of the scheduled operators confirmed their readiness for a restart, amid new safety protocol. For instance, all intending passengers have been advised to book online, wear face masks, arrive early and fully submit selves to screening at various stages in and out of the terminals. Similarly, the airlines are marketing hike fares, though onboard meals have been scrapped.

Arik Air Chief Executive Officer, Captain Roy Ilegbodu, said they were ready to fly their customers again.

“All preparations have been made to make flying in this extraordinary period in the world safe and pleasurable. Arik has worked actively with aviation agencies for an effective re-start of the industry and also ensure that agreed health measures are effectively implemented,” Ilegbodu said.

He added that the airline would be operating three daily flights from Lagos to Abuja in the first phase of the restart while Port Harcourt would be added to the schedule from Saturday, July 11, 2020, when the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa, would be reopened for operations.

Passengers were advised to arrive at the airport three hours before the scheduled departure so as to have ample time to undergo security and health protocol before the flight. Furthermore, all passengers are required to come properly kitted with their face masks.

Media and Communications Manager of Dana Air, Kingsley Ezenwa, also said the airline was 100 per cent ready.

“All Personal Protective Equipment has been made available for all staff, crew and passengers who might not come around with one. All recommended training and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for staff have also been updated and concluded.

“All our aircraft are fitted with High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, which filter 99.9 per cent of unwanted particles and viruses in the air. It also helps passengers breathe normally. All aircraft in our fleet have also been disinfected as recommended by the NCAA, and we have an optimised cleaning protocol.”

SOME operators were worried that the Federal Government was yet to release the bailout fund till date, despite the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika’s promise that the palliative would be released early this week.

Besides, there is no consensus yet on the onboard physical distancing directive of the Federal Government, which some airlines have vowed not to obey for economic reasons.

Director-General of NCAA, Capt. Musa Nuhu, at a forum yesterday, reassured the airlines that they would still get the bailout.

Nuhu said that the palliatives might be in the form of grants and loans. The loans will be long term, with single-digit for the entire aviation industry, including the NCAA.

He said the airlines were not alone in the waiting game, as other operators and regulators, had losses, which they need to cushion with the bailout lump sum.

“We (NCAA) have lost over 90 per cent of our revenue in the last three months or so. We are operating basically on our reserve, which is about to run out,” he said.

Chairman of Airline and Passenger Joint Committee (APJC) and a major stakeholder in the travel agencies’ arm of the industry, Bankole Bernard, expressed appreciation to the Federal Government and operators on the efforts to get the sector ready for safe resumption.

Bernard said many Nigerians were ready to fly again, projecting that the opening load factor would range between 25 to 30 per cent.

“Based on a request by customers, I already see about 30 per cent traffic of the pre-COVID era. This is not a bad start, as a lot of travellers will still be skeptical. By next week, it will peak to about 50 per cent and continue to increase steadily as confidence grows.

“Businesses are heavily dependent on movement. And as the airspace is opening, more businesses will be resuming. But our people only need to be more disciplined and cooperate with the established safety protocol. I expect the international flights to also resume in about two weeks from now. That will help the local sector to recover faster,” Bernard said.

Aviation Security consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), also said that restarting flights from five airports out of 26 federal, states and private airports was a better way to start, “if we want to effectively track and trace positive cases on domestic flights.”

Ojikutu said that the issue of the vacant middle seat or not would not arise now, as none of the aircraft would have full capacity at the initial stage.

“We should not expect that we would get up to 50 per cent of the aircraft capacity in all the domestic airlines fleet, just as it is not expected that we could have 50 per cent pre-COVID 19 passenger traffic for the restart at the five airports.”

Ojikutu added that the air traffic control and navigational services seem not to have problems as they were not in the public eyes but in that of the airlines, and pilots in particular.

However, “there have been a number of flight clearance violations, which concern aviation security with serious consequences on national security. There could be copycats with criminal intentions in an emergency like we are controllers, henceforth, must be critical of the flight plans submitted for special flights and ensure that they carry the approval of the responsible authority attached to the flight plans,” Ojikutu advised.

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