The country’s aviation sector started the week with controversy brought about by the declaration of the Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, during an impromptu visit he paid to the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos.
During the visit, the minister made some controversial declarations ranging from the position of the domestic airlines towards the move by African countries to implement the Open Skies policy for the integration of the continent, to the Bilateral Air Services Agreements (BASAs) Nigeria has with over 80 countries, the indebtedness of the domestic airlines to the aviation agencies and other relevant partners and many other issues.
Responding to questions from the media, the minister stated: “This question that you asked certainly injected some sad mood and got me thinking. The Nigerian airlines were at the forefront of the campaign to respect, implement the Yamoussoukro Declaration at a time when they felt vantage. Today, they are singing another song. They are owing all over the place. I am not sure they are financially healthy. NCAA to my knowledge is conducting audit round the airlines at the moment and I am sure the result is not something we want to go to the press with. They refused to grow and the challenges are not government orchestrated. It is their own making.
“There is an airline that is owing one of the agencies N13 billion. There is another airline that is owing a total debt of about N500bn, not to agencies of aviation, but collective indebtedness of that airline. Very soon, there will be a stakeholders’ meeting where the airlines will be present. we will have a dialogue on the situation they have found themselves and if I would advise them, it is to get their acts together to focus, to re-organise, re-engineer and take advantage and be futuristic.”
As soon as the minister’s statement was made public through the media, the entire sector was literally set on fire with different reactions coming from different interest groups.
First to react was the airline operators who spoke through their chairman, Captain Nogie Meggison, who took a swipe at the minister for claiming that the airlines were indebted to the tune of N516 billion.
To the airlines, the figure being bandied by the minister is unsubstantiated and the description of the airlines as being weak and financially unhealthy coming from someone expected to have done his home work well before announcing such a figure fell short of his position.
On the position of the minister that the domestic airlines should embrace the African Single-Sky policy, Meggison argued that for the new policy to work, Africa Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC) should provide a level playing field while every member country should charge the same amount from one country to another.
The former vice chairman of Arik Air, Senator Anietie Okon, in his reaction while insisting that the airlines did not owe as much as the minister declared, challenged the minister that if the domestic airlines were actually not doing well as he alleged that it was the responsibility of the minister and the government to ensure that airlines improve in their operations.
Obviously, all these accusations and counter accusations from the minister and the airlines are unpalatable in the sense that none of the major players can exonerate itself from the mess everywhere.
While the minister has the right to express his opinion as the representative of the Federal Government on aviation matters, it is unacceptable to pretend not to know that some policies so far taken by government partly contributed to the woes of the airlines and the sector in general.
Such bad policies included many of the BASAs the Ministry of Aviation had signed on behalf of Nigeria with some countries which have been found to be at the expense of the country.
Rather than being to the country’s advantage, it is the other way round with airlines from such countries smiling home with billions of foreign currencies while the same government that is supporting the foreign airlines is looking the other way as its own indigenous carriers are collapsing.
While it is true that the local airlines also greatly contributed and still contribute to their ruins as witnessed in their inability to play the game of the business by its rules like embracing partnerships and using the right equipment on the right routes, the government too has not done enough in making the environment conducive for domestic airline business through many of the policies such as high taxes, expensive and unavailable aviation fuel,unlimited frequencies and multiple entry points to foreign carriers, to mention but a few.
It is therefore unacceptable to hear that the minister said that because the airlines refused to grow that the challenges facing them are not caused by the government.
Without any bias, the past governments and partially the present one cannot excuse themselves from the crisis confronting the airlines in the face of the porous BASAs, high taxes, unpopular import duty charges and expensive Jet A1.
Therefore, the challenges facing the airlines and the entire sector are so bogus for any government to feign ignorance of. After all, what will be the achievement of any government to watch all its domestic airlines collapse under the lean excuse that they refuse to grow.
The time has come for government to help the airlines grow by reviewing its unpopular policies which many key players had identified to be contributory factor to the ruins of the domestic airlines.