A vision for Nigerian aviation
Aviation, no doubt, is pivotal to the growth of key economic sectors, contrary to some notions that it is limited to travel and tourism. But the sector’s potentials need first to be properly harnessed, particularly against daunting challenges such as airports that are functioning much below their envisioned capacities, obsolete equipment and dilapidated infrastructure, as well as aviation safety and security. Of course the question of the desirability or otherwise of a national carrier remains pending and relevant. All these probably informed the vision of Senator Hadi Sirika, Minister of State for Aviation in a bid to achieving a quantum leap forward for the industry.
Firstly, Government plans to concession four major airports by bringing in the private sector. Underlying this plan is the hope that the country can achieve better infrastructural development and improve the efficiency of service delivery at these airports. The airports in question are the international airports in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano.
On the challenges of obsolete equipment, dilapidated infrastructure and inadequate capacity, Sirika believed these would be addressed by the newly initiated concession programme and completion of five new, world class, ultra-modern airport terminals. The country needs to quickly develop air cargo capacity in order to participate actively in multi-billion dollars global agro-allied export trade.
Government’s position on all of these tough issues should perhaps leave no one in doubt about the policy direction of the Buhari administration as regards the aviation industry. On safety and security at our airports, the minister was of the view that government’s response should include the development of a new security strategy framework in partnership with international security organisations, the determined implementation of a certification programme for all our airports and a comprehensive security threat and vulnerability assessment of our airports.
The issue of a national carrier is certainly a vexed issue. Sirika was emphatic that the administration will establish a national carrier because of the benefits that the country would derive from it, especially from the various bilateral and multilateral air services agreements signed by the government with other countries, worldwide. It would also help stem current capital flight due to foreign airlines exploiting the current absence of a Nigerian national carrier.
It is instructive that the carrier will be floated on the stock exchange and listed whereby Nigerians can buy its shares and own it. Thus, government plans to engage the services of a transaction adviser “to develop an appropriate business model and framework to establish a national carrier using a public/private partnership concept.” When in place, the national carrier would be expected to form alliances and joint ventures with other carriers, in order to increase its reach and routes.
Also to be considered is the issue of national prestige and national pride when talking about a national carrier, as some smaller African countries such as Ethiopia proudly fly their countries colours on their national carriers, many of which have become successful ventures.
The appalling lack of a world class aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility in West and Central Africa is naturally a source of concern to the aviation helmsman who consequently challenges Nigerian investors to key into the bountiful opportunity. While government was determined to create an enabling environment that would provide an impetus to willing investors, it is Sirika’s hope that such investors could go beyond only MRO but actually initiate the local manufacturing of light aircraft spare parts in the country, which would help save foreign exchange and create more jobs for Nigerians in the country.
The issue of air cargo facilities ties with the country’s hopes of generating more foreign exchange from agricultural produce and other non-oil exports. As the minister noted, the country is currently losing a lot in potential income from export of perishable agricultural produce including fresh flowers and vegetable as a result of the absence of adequate air cargo facilities. Apart from generating forex, it has far reaching socio- economic impact as it will improve farmers’ income significantly and help stem rural to urban migration. Government is working hard to meet this challenge.
There is need to vigorously enforce expatriate quotas for staffing of foreign airlines operating in the country, so that foreigners do not continue to take jobs meant for Nigerians. Notably, discussions are in top gear with the Central Bank of Nigeria to ease forex supply shortfall to airlines, especially foreign airlines because they operate and pay for several services in foreign exchange whereas, tickets are sold in naira locally, putting airlines at a disadvantage. Further, government is well aware of financing difficulties faced by Nigerian airlines in the leasing of aircraft. They have limited access to capital even then at high interest rates of about 27 per cent currently. They are also faced with inadequate numbers of aircraft, while they have high debt profiles. The minister said that the government intends to set up an aircraft leasing company to assist these Nigerian airlines, to have better access to leased aircraft for their operations.
The Buhari administration has been able to provide bomb containment vessels at the Malam Aminu Kano International Airport Kano and at the Port Harcourt International Airport. This is besides installing solar-powered field lighting systems at 10 airports. Sirika’s promise that the Nigerian aviation industry would soon have a master plan in place, along with the joint involvement of public and private sectors, is highly instructive. It holds the key to making the Nigerian aviation industry profitable and self-sustaining to all stakeholders.
Dati is the General Manager Public Affairs, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).