Nigeria Air and FG’s Misplaced Priority – By Jeffrey Utapia

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Nigerian aviation industry is in dire straits. A critical sector strategic to the nation’s economy has never been in such a protracted strain for this long. Like a ship on a voyage already struggling to survive internal challenges to avoid shipwreck, got pummeled by a virulent storm of Covid-19 in 2020.
Aviation sector, globally, was the worst hit industry by the pandemic. While other countries gave out bailout funds in billions of dollars to their indigenous airlines, to cushion the adverse effects of the pandemic and to stage a comeback, Nigeria government managed to give a paltry of four billion naira to the entire aviation sector.
The unit cost of one aircraft engine is more than four billion naira. So, the meager sum was a drop of water in a desert yearning for rain. Federal Government gave paucity of funds as excuse for not providing much palliatives to the industry to recover from the Covid-19 crisis. Aftermath of the pandemic has left Nigerian aviation industry hemorrhaging and grasping for breath till date.
 As I write, the situation has exacerbated. Local airlines have been struggling to remain afloat. Faced with skyrocketing price of aviation fuel, scarce forex, poor infrastructure at the airports, etc., operating environment has been hellish and suffocating for local airlines. Fleet capacity has been reduced to 38%. Two local airlines have shutdown operations with its attendant job losses.
Nigerian flying public has been experiencing incessant flight delays, cancelations and astronomical increment in air fares. As a result of these ugly developments, a lot of Nigerians can no longer afford to fly neither will they risk traveling on the road for fear of being kidnapped. An auspicious time like this calls for pragmatic actions from Federal Government to provide leadership out of the doldrums.
Unfortunately and sadly, Federal Government via Ministry of Aviation is on a wild goose chase of floating another airline—Nigeria Air, when local airlines are closing shops as a result of difficult operating environment. Thousands of jobs are being lost and many Nigerians are finding it hard to afford high air ticket. Local airlines cannot access foreign exchange for critical spare parts, let alone acquiring new aircraft.
The entire aviation sector is enveloped in the misery of uncertainty and unpredictability. As a passenger booking your flight schedule, you are gripped by the fear that your flight could be delayed for hours, or even outrightly canceled due to difficult operating environment, yet the regulator that should be saddled with enhancing doing of business, is preoccupied with a misplaced priority, trying to float another airline, Nigeria Air, in already saturated industry; with over twenty prospective airlines awaiting approval.
With most aviation transactions domiciled in dollars while income is in naira, local airlines are finding it difficult to service their aircraft in the midst of acute scarcity of forex. For example, to do a C-check on Boeing 737 cost close to two million dollars. With exchange rate of N725/$ parity, it is a herculean task to raise such humongous amount with its attendant cascading negative effects on the airlines, that are bedeviled by rising cost of aviation fuel and poor infrastructure at the airports.
So, the big question is, why a national carrier now? Is it not ill—timed and wrongly advised? Ministry of Aviation said that Federal Government would only have five percent equity interest in it, who are the remaining 95 percent shareholders? Information from the grapevine insinuates that 49 percent is reserved for a foreign interest, possibly an airline, while 46 percent is reserved for Nigerian investors.
What is the name of this foreign airline? What are the names of Nigerians taking up the 46 per cent shares? Why the secrecy regarding the shareholders of a proposed “national carrier”? Aren’t the government supposed to be occupied in helping a strategic sector like a aviation survive this hard times instead of creating another conduit pipe to waste limited public resources, on a project billed to fail from the onset? Is this not a misplaced priority? Time shall reveal.
Nigeria Air, recently got its Air Transport License (ATL), is billed to start operation as Federal Government has approved a lease of three aircraft for its commencement. Between 2019 and 2022, this initiative has allegedly gulped appropriation provision of fourteen billion naira. This is happening in a sector where only 4 out of 22 airports are viable. Even some of the functional airports do not have adequate runway lighting system.
Infrastructural facilities in our airports are still poor when compared to what is obtainable in other climes. Here, limited parking slots for aircraft make our airport resemble unorganized motor park, orchestrating delays in flights. There is no Maintenance Repair and Overall (MRO) facility in the country that can do high level of aircraft servicing like C-checks and D-checks.
Local airlines spend millions of dollars annually to service planes abroad because of non availability of MROs, thereby putting pressure on the nation’s limited foreign reserve and its downward spiral effects on the naira vis-a-vis the economy. Instead of misappropriating public funds in the guise of floating a national carrier that won’t withstand the already hostile operating environment, Federal Government should redirect these funds to reduce the burden on local airlines by upgrading facilities at the airports and investing in MRO facilities to enable airlines service aircraft locally and ensure that aviation fuel is refined locally, as well.
At at today, the nation’s aviation industry needs government intervention to save it from impending collapse arising from high cost of aviation fuel, scarce forex and poor infrastructure at the airports. Floating another airline in the name of “National Carrier” will only complicate the existing challenges in the industry. A nation, of which her debt service has buoyed her revenue, with a fast depreciating currency, can no longer afford such expensive experiment whose outcome is already known to be in the negative.
What manner of unpatriotic persons sat in the National Executive Council (FEC) and allowed this illogical proposal to scale through at this point that the nation is technically broke? And ASUU is still on strike, close to six months because of Federal Government inability to meet up with the union’s financial demands?
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has even said that Nigeria did not need a national carrier at this juncture of our nationhood.  This ill-advised move to float “Nigeria Air“ at this point of economic crisis is not only a misplaced priority but very unpatriotic. Those behind it should for once put national interest above selfish interests.

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