NIGERIA: Why FG Must Rescue And Save Flag Carriers From Aeropolitics

The Federal Government’s laid back disposition to the plight of Nigerian flag carriers abroad is suffocating investment and efforts of local operators to have a stake in the competitive international airspace.

Refusal by the United Kingdom’s government to grant Air Peace airlines a landing permit, to evacuate stranded Nigerians in England, has reawakened a row over alleged Federal Government’s failure to protect local operators.

Indeed, international commercial airspace is an aggressive business setting that brooks no privileges. As an operator, you are either at your competitive best or have the government’s backing to muscle a voice and be accorded rights. More often than not, Nigerian local carriers have lacked both.

Since the collapse and liquidation of the Nigeria Airways in 2004, succeeding local airlines or flag carriers, have had a hell of a struggle to stay afloat or compete with their foreign counterparts. Airlines with less than 10 aircraft fleet size could hardly compete with those crisscrossing the globe with 100, 300 or 600 airplanes.

Stakeholders have said the only hope of survival for Nigerian flag carriers is for government to stand in their defence, rally behind their operations and protect them from dominant carriers even on the local front.

Queen says no
The earlier plan to evacuate stranded Nigerians from the United Kingdom earlier this week hit a brick wall as the UK government denied Air Peace airplane a landing permit.

Initially scheduled to depart Heathrow Airport, London, on Monday, the airlift of about 584 was rescheduled for Tuesday at Gatwick Airport London. This followed the UK’s sudden withdrawal of diplomatic landing clearance to Air Peace, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesperson, Ferdinand Nwonye, said in a statement.

While Air Peace airline had evacuated over 300 Nigerians from the UK about a fortnight ago, the reason for the UK’s sudden withdrawal of the landing clearance remains unclear.

The Chairman of the airlines, Allen Onyema, explained that all arrangements were made, including payments, “only for the UK authorities to withdraw landing rights close to departure.” “That was despite strong representations by the Nigerian Government, including pointing out the hardship that would be caused to hundreds of Nigerian evacuees.”

Consequently, Air Peace was urged to find an alternative among UK airlines to airlift the stranded Nigerians back home on Tuesday.

“Air Peace could have just refunded the passengers but exceptionally, patriotically and altruistically agreed to find an alternative carrier acceptable to the UK authorities to carry out the evacuation a day later than scheduled but for much higher fares,” the Foreign Affairs minister, Geoffrey Onyema, said in the Twitter post.

Given the latest act of “patriotism” by the local carrier, stakeholders were concerned that the Federal Government yet again allowed an alleged “breach of diplomatic protocol” to roll by without a challenge.

Canada led the way
Similar intrigues unfurled in May when the Canadian government stalled the evacuation of 200 Nigerians over alleged conflict of interest in the choice of the operating carrier.

While the Nigerian government-designated Air Peace for the special operation, the Canadian government had a preference for another airline, though at more expensive fares for the travellers.

Air Peace was denied the landing right permits, hence, had to make refunds to travellers.

Indeed, the airline is not the first to be forced out of an international route. Recall that the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) provides for reciprocity by the number of flights and destinations. Not for lack of trying to reciprocate though. It has always being a tale of woes for local airlines on most competitive international markets without the government’s protection that often sustains national carriers.

For instance, one of the flag carriers, Med-View Airlines Plc, until March 2018 operated the Lagos-London and Lagos-Dubai routes amid multiple operational hurdles and alleged stiff resistance from the other end. With the European Union banning its aircraft from operating in the region, and subsequent aircraft lessor’s default, both routes were suspended. In a similar manner, Arik Air pulled out of the London, New York and Johannesburg routes in 2017.

Blame aeropolitics, government’s negligence
An official of Air Peace explained that they had done many international flights, including landing in Canada and the UK successfully.

“We have made 19 flights to the United States since 2014. We have flown to Tel-Aviv several times, and in March, we evacuated over 200 Israelis from Nigeria during this COVID-19 lockdown. We have scheduled flight operations to the United Arab Emirates. We have also flown to the UK, Ireland, China, Turkey, Germany, Iceland, Switzerland and other countries.

“We have IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certification and we are a member of IATA. We have also evacuated Nigerians from South Africa during the Xenophobia attack of Africans there. We have no reason not to be welcome in any country,” the official said.

Reacting to the incident, former Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Benedict Adeyileka, described the denials as political, and urged the Federal Government to stand firmly on its position that Nigerian carriers should execute Nigerian missions.

“I am a nationalist to the core. Anything Nigerian is good enough as long as it is qualified to carry out the operation and Air Peace has international operation experience. I insist that the Nigerian government should put its foot down on this. Nigerian carriers should not be stopped from conducting international operations,” he said.

The chairman of the Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON), Capt. Nogie Meggison, said it was unfortunate that State officials “gave preference to foreign airlines over Nigerian carriers during the evacuation exercise”.

Meggison said government’s laidback attitude was disappointing after it had made earlier statements that it would engage three domestic airlines that have capacity and airplanes to carry out these evacuation exercises.

He said Nigeria does not have social security like countries where sacked workers receive a certain amount of money for several months to cushion the effect of the sack, adding that how to kick-start the airlines after COVID-19 should be in the mind of government.

“Our Government is putting money in the aviation sector to support their survival and somebody is giving Nigerian jobs to outsiders. How do we pay back the loans? How can our airlines rejuvenate their staff without money? How do we keep our airlines afloat? How do we contribute to Nigeria’s GDP?

“So, we are calling on the government to probe those involved in this mischief because what they have done is counterproductive and they should cancel this foreign contract. Nigerian airlines have the capacity to airlift Nigerians. Just imagine how the money earned would have strengthened the operations of the airlines and the Nigerian GDP during this period,” Meggison said.

Reps’ huff and puff
Miffed by the development, the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation urged the government to consider stopping some airlines from coming to Nigeria.

The Chairman of the Committee, Nnolim Nnaji, at a recent meeting in Abuja, pressed for the review of skewed BASA agreements and multiple entry designations granted to some international airlines to protect the local industry, to ensure safety and quality service delivery by all agencies and organisations that operate in the industry.

Nnaji said: “Our aviation industry has great potential, which has over the years been unduly exploited by foreign airlines. My understanding is that several foreign carriers operate multiple flights out of Nigeria daily, charging very exorbitant fares, without any indigenous operator reciprocating same. These, no doubt, promote capital flights, unemployment and negatively impact on the economic growth of the nation, which should not be tolerated”.

“There may also be a need to review the BASA signed with various countries to address the increasing dominance of the Aviation industry by foreign airlines so that our indigenous carriers can be protected from early collapse as has been observed,” the lawmaker said.

We should reposition for proper recognition
Aviation security consultant and former commandant of the Lagos Airport in the 90s, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), said it was futile for the lawmakers to force changes without first addressing systemic gaps.

Ojikutu said for the flag carriers to have been rejected, the host country must have seen something that is ultra vires to their local regulations.

“Just like you cannot go to anybody’s country without visa, it is the same rule that applies to evacuation mission. Because when you submit visa application, the host country will go ahead and do background check on the applicant. The question now is what is the result of the background check? But they won’t show you. The only thing they would say is ‘go and look for another airline. This one we cannot approve it.’

“Again, what is the pedigree of the airlines that you have sent? What confidence level does it have even locally? These are the issues. That is why I have said that the government should classify all the airlines going regional and continental operations as its ambassadors. When you do, put the Nigerian flag on them. There is no single American airline that you will not see the flag, yet they are not government’s airlines. That is to tell you that the government has a responsibility for it.

“But the country itself has not projected its own airlines the way it ought to do for whatever reason. We project foreign carriers in our own country better than our own airlines. Our behaviours are such that we show the rest of the world particularly our diplomatic and trade competitors that we don’t have capacity or capabilities in BASAs and the Open Sky Treaty on regional and international routes and even our local routes that make us give multiple destination and landings to foreign airlines. So, how would you press for a position for a private airline that has no serious government support in the trade business that is dominated by government and public airlines of foreign countries and are generally in Alliances?”

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