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Aviation Most Resilient Sector in Nigeria —Okonkwo

Professor Obiora Okonkwo is the chairman of United Nigeria Airlines (UNA). In this interview with SHOLA ADEKOLA, he speaks on trending issues, including the menace of flight delays and cancellations, the NCAA six aircraft policy, the FAAN sunset airport policy, among others. Excerpts

DO domestic carriers have capacity to fill the imminent threat gap amidst calls for cancellation of 8th and 9th freedom?

There is no reason for it to have existed in the first place. What this simply means is that you (foreign airlines) will land in Lagos, pick passengers in Port Harcourt and then you come back to fly out. There is no part of the world where that is done. In America, you can’t do it, even with your private jet. You can only land in one point and follow local operators or you charter a jet.

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That is why we have codesharing, partnering. If you land in Lagos, go to Port Harcourt to pick passengers and return to Lagos to London for instance, who will I carry from Port Harcourt to Lagos? Each country protects their own domestic carrier. It should be point-to-point, land here and take off from there.

We allowed it because some people argue for the wrong reason. If you argue that we can’t fly to London for instance, can you also argue that we can’t fly from Lagos to Port Harcourt and to Abuja? This is just done as a blatant disregard to the interest of the local operators. Whoever granted those things is not wishing us well and such a person should be punished. It’s just to show you how hostile the environment you operate is. You can’t discuss this anywhere if it is not Nigeria. You have how many local operators? You still fly to Port Harcourt for instance with empty seats.

I think that in the new arrangement with the new minister and with the AON coming up strongly, we are going to sit down soon and harmonise these things so that issue of interline should come back to the business of our aviation. It was there before. It is inevitable. Codesharing should also be a factor. We want all of them addressed.

We hope that the minister, in his plan to review the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA), will factor all those things in. When those things are done correctly, you can be rest assured that it will strengthen the local airline operators.

How can airlines permanently address the issue of flight delays and cancellations?

It is obvious that out of 100 reasons why there will be flight delays, may be only two or three could be attributed to the airlines alone. The rest are beyond the control of the operators.

I also want us to know that we are looking for the best, we are looking for the potential this industry has. If you look deeply, compare the aviation sector to the other sectors in Nigeria, from the discussions we are having with most of our friends here, we can easily say we are the most resilient industry in this country, in view of the current economic situation we find ourselves.

If you have to react to the situation around us, probably, many airlines may not have to be flying, and flying may not be because they can, they make more money not flying because when you fly and lose money, it is safer not to fly, but because of the resilience of the operators and the level of patriotism in them I always want to call out documentation.

We are still moving the way of economic activities in this country. We understand that the roads are very bad and the security situation is getting worse and if you stop flying, everything will cripple.

When there are delays, try to understand why. Delays and cancellations happen all over the world. It is not peculiar to Nigeria alone. Some people deal with operators because of stereotypes. Nigerian operators have seen good and bad times.

Airlines open and close, but you have had more banks, industries close down than airlines. It is just because of the environment we are in.

More so, some of these big airlines you see started with small aircraft; United Nigeria started with four aircraft. Emirates Airlines started with only two aircraft, Ryan Air started with only two aircraft; Ethiopian Airlines started with only two. So, the number you start with is not the case, but the environment that you operate in is what helps you to grow.

So, what we expect from the Nigerian government, air travellers and others is the collective effort to grow this industry and when we grow the industry, we can take over the global stage, because we have huge mobile population.

The potential of aviaiton we have in Nigeria is not existing in many countries that are leading the global aviation world. We are not benefitting from it. So, our commitment is working hard, meeting all the international standards to make sure Nigerian aviaiton is well positioned for benefit. When we benefit, it will help to grow our GDP, attract foreign exchange, be a new window for source of income, reduce dependency on oil, create jobs and obviously, everybody will benefit.

How about NCAA six aircraft policy?

We, in AON, are very thankful to NCAA for their regulatory effort and we have no doubt that their safety oversight has been very helpful to the industry, but we think that by the time they step out of the safety regulatory issue, ICAO impelmentation and dwell on the number of aircraft for airlines, they are now determining the model for operators.

I belive that the business model for airlines should be their prerogative. You may be surprised to know that there are AOC owners in this country who are members of AON and they have only one helicopters servicing the oil industry.

When you go to other parts of the world, there are people who have just three aircraft, servicing one airport to the other. They want to remain there. They are not forced to grow. So, the issue is that the number of aircraft you have does not determine how fast you get to your destination. It doesn’t solve problem of delay. If problem of delay is as a result of VIP movement, if you have 100 aircraft, they will remain on the land.

The problem of delay is due to weather and you can’t land in airport because the ILS is not calibrated for the necessary equipment and they are not available. There is nothing you can do.

We think that as soon as all the relevant bodies are able to provide the necessary infrastructure and create the right environment, this problem will solve itself.

Only two and three percent of delay factors could be attributed to the operators, because every aircraft owner knows that you only make money when your aircraft is flying. Aircraft on the ground, whether you fly or not, incurs expenses and when the time comes for the maintenance to be made and the lease to be made, nobody asks you whether you fly or not.

So, it pays us to fly and the only way airlines make money is when they sell tickets. And they don’t make money when the ticket is sold, but when the ticket is utilised, because when people come for refund, you don’t make money from that.

So, we are the number one beneficiary if aircraft leaves timely and the customers get to their destinations and we know that from practical experience, the solution is not from the number of aircraft.

If they insist that we should have some aircraft at the airport waiting to cover some passengers, that doesn’t show commercial sense. So, we believe that they should leave people to choose the number of aircraft they want to have.

The minimum they have, which is three now, is already good enough and for us who are in the industry, we want people to come in as much as possible.

Again, I want them to know that the few we have now already operating internally are facing grave infrastructural deficit. Some of the airports don’t even have enough parking space for the number of aircraft that have come in. The check-in counters we have at busy airports are not enough, even the manpower.

Do you know what it takes if you insist on minimum of six aircraft? You are about tripling the number of manpower and the maintenance too will be high and so forth. It will be bad to make this kind of decision at this time of economic downturn. This thing must be considered.

We think that the space we have now is not enough. You need to expand the airport three times, the check-in counters, increase all the facilities. There could be many aircraft needed. We are short of aircraft no doubt about that, but it could clearly be the business model of the company to decide and besides, if you look at the number of aircraft being signed now waiting for delivery, in the next two to three years, we should have about 100 airctaft into this country by the existing operators and we are already talking about the need for improved infrastructure. I think that should be our focus for now.

Preparation of UNA for Regional and international flights?

We have made our demands to our destinations, the routes can never be started the same day, but the processes to kick them off are a long process. We have to keep them in the pipeline, but I can assure you that there is a huge interest towards us in times of interlining agreements, point-to-point agreement and services, those things are already going on and we are already negotiating.

From our own part, we are ready to start as soon as we are able to clear all the necessary certifications that are meant for us in some key destinations, but if you ask us our preferred destinations internationally, we are looking at United Kingdom, Italy, Dubai and the United States. These four are in the top of our priority for the first phase of our international operations.

For regional, in few weeks, we should be heading to Ghana. We have finished all the process that are needed to be done in Ghana, it is just for us to fix our date and take off from there. We will then be adding other regions to it. All the trainings that are required for regional and international operations are ongoing. This requires new fleet, new hands and we have to get all those requirements and standards. We are on it and we hope to have enough people to service each station we are opening. The good thing is that these are parts of the requirements, verifications and certifications that must be done before you are allowed to take off before landing.

On Aircraft utilisation?

A typical aircraft in Nigeria will do six to eight sectors; if you have airports with facilities, you could do 10 to 12 sectors. A typical aircraft can fly 18 hours in a day.

Aircraft we have in Nigeria are under-utilised. We fly only for eight hours and an aircraft is produced to fly 18 hours in a day. so, if you have aircraft that are under-utilised because of sunset airports, and the travel culture that people can only travel in the morning, up to 6 o’clock when there is light, then, why do we need to add another one to what is already under-utilised.

So, the focus should be how do we work to ensure that we maximize utilization of the aircraft. when we have that, we will not have pressure of travelling. You will even pay cheaper because flying in the early hours will be cheaper than flying in prime.

And for us who are leasing aircraft, you are more attracted to a lessor who knows you can utilize his aircraft for higher hours, but in Nigeria, the much you can sign is 150 to 200 hours a month. The aircraft we use here for 150 to 200 hours in a month is used about 3,000 hours in a month overseas, especially during the summer. And our airspace here is short range; 45 minutes, one hour.

So, these are parts of the challenges that we are having. The issue here is that the law already exists, NCAA approves their schedules and designations.

Source : Zawya