Sunday, August 14, 2022 6:00 am
By Anthony Kila
In the first week of April 2022, the League of Airport and Aviation Correspondents(LAAC), Nigeria’s aviation media umbrella body saddled with the responsibility of ensuring effective media coverage and practice in the aviation industry unveiled its annual conference slated for the last week of July 2022. The major concerns of those aviation reporters were around the effects of dwindling space of operation for aviation operators, reduced and delayed flights for passengers, increase in cost for all. By the day of the LAAC conference (28th July 2022), some aviation staff had joined the general strike called by the Nigerian Labour Congress and two of the biggest and most recognised Nigerian airlines had stopped their flights.
First it was Aero Contractors and two days later as if affected by a contagious virus, it was the turn of Dana Air. The dreadful question is which airline is next? Aero Contractors was forced to fold the wings of its scheduled flights due to exorbitant and unsustainable expenditures they had to incur in order to operate their scheduled flights and lack of equipment needed for their processes. Dana Air was forced to quit the field operation over poor liquidity by the apex regulator, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).
In both cases, the results are stranded angry and, in some cases violent passengers, that have to deal with disrupted plans and the challenges of looking for replacement flights at prices way higher than what they initially budgeted and paid, on the side we have frustrated airline staff faced with uncertainty about their professional lives.
As one can easily imagine, many meetings and conferences of intending passengers were cancelled. Aviation analysts, operators and particularly regulators like to say and even repeat that what matters to them more than any other thing in the industry is safety. As if to prove the point most aviation forums and agencies prefix or a suffix their names, deliberations and description with the term “safety”. In the name of safety, airlines are grounded and operations suspended by the regulator and one cannot in conscience and based on general and commonsensical thinking fault the intention and reasoning of the regulators when they justify their disruptive decisions along the lines of “better grounded than risky”.
It is easy to retort that the road to hell is paved with good intentions but that will be a banter of wits. The deep and hurting reality is that we have an aviation crisis and emergency in our hands in this country. It is a crisis because high cost of flights and shutting down of airlines in a country as big as ours in the times we live in looks very bad and it is leading to serious disruptions. It is an emergency because we cannot afford to let the situation play out itself and we cannot be patient and wait for long term solutions. We need to act swiftly and decisively to deal with this situation so that this very bad situation we have at hand does not turn into an unmanageable disaster. Decisive actions in this case will require a total rethink and resetting of the way we conceive and manage our aviation manners. There is a prevailing idea in the general public and amongst too many leaders of thought, opinion moulders and indeed policy makers that aviation is a sector that services the elites or the privileged, this is however an anachronistic misconception that needs to be deliberately and assertively corrected. Those who know and can need to find the clarity of mind and courage of voice to explain to the rest of the society that in the times we live in and with the size and structure of Nigeria, aviation has become and will remain a basic and essential infrastructure.
With such conception in mind, the role of regulators in the sector will be radically modified. At the moment, our aviation regulators seem to come alive and are felt by many only when they disrupt, we seem to know they are there only after they have grounded or suspended. The regulator of a basic and essential service should be and must be seen to be committed to the delivery of services not its suspension, regardless of how noble their intentions are.
NCAA should be known for what it is doing to help airlines fly and we should all be educated to know that they are doing so because of the general good not as a favour to a company, private or public it does not matter. For the sake of consumers and citizens, aviation regulators should be working like a clearing house on ensuring that stranded passengers of delayed and cancelled flights can fly with the next available flights just as debit and credit card holders issued by one bank can easily withdraw money from the Automated Teller Machine (ATM) of any available bank.
Whilst “safety” is a recurrent theme in aviation discussion, a closer look will readily reveal that finance is a sine qua non element of existence and survival in the aviation sector. To make matters worse, in aviation it is not just any money, it has to be foreign currency. The government through the presiding ministry and its regulating agencies in collaboration with the ministry of finance needs to champion the case of aviation to make forex available, affordable and accessible to aviation operators. Clearly, it is not enough to have aviation funds from government banks or aviation desks in commercial banks anymore, in line with rethinking and resting our aviation manners, it is time we think of activating an aviation bank that will raise and mange funds and offer niche financial products for the aviation industry.
With over twenty years in the industry, I can knowledgably confirm that luckily aviation is not a pauper’s business and finding depositors and shareholders will not be an insurmountable problem for capable promoters but the political will is needed. In the spirit of rethinking of and resting aviation, operators need to go beyond flying or selling and distributing tickets, it is time to represent their challenges as rewarding opportunities to capable innovators, inventors and investors. Maintenance of equipment, refining of aviation fuel, training and development of human capital, deployment of distribution systems and other problems that are adversely affecting the sector can and should be thrown open to the market as opportunities for players outside the aviation sector. To do all these and much more, requires the ability to conceive, shape and propose rewarding and sustainable partnership between the public and private sectors, it requires a collaboration of thinkers and doers but above it requires a leadership that can clearly and boldly rethink and reset aviation.
Join me if you can @anthonykila to continue these conversations.
-Prof Kila is the Director at Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies (CIAPS), Lagos