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The development and improvement of airport infrastructure trumps any policy drive to compel airlines in the country to have at least six aircraft in their fleet, a leading domestic operator has told the Nigerian federal government.
Obiora Okonkwo, a professor and chairman, United Nigeria Airline, says Nigeria must prioritise improvement of airports infrastructure over compelling Nigerian airlines to have a minimum of six aircraft before starting operations.
He spoke at the recent presentation of International Air Transport Association (IATA) membership certificate to the airline in its Lagos office, noting that the policy does not solve any problem in the sector, adding that infrastructure, which is germane to airline operations at the airports, are decrepit.
Obiora’s intervention followed the unveiling in July this year of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) policy on schedule airline operation in Nigeria where it stated that from January 2025 the minimum aircraft fleet of any airline providing such service in Nigeria would be six aircraft, as against the minimum of three aircraft, which has been the policy over the years.
The policy also insisted that the maximum aircraft that must be airworthy out of the six aircraft should be four. This means that an airline is expected to ground its operations if it has less than four aircraft that are airworthy. The policy excused the fact that two out of the six aircraft could be on maintenance or just AOG (aircraft on ground), but if the number of aircraft in the airline fleet reduces to three that are airworthy the airline would shut down service.
Also, the policy allows just one or two wet leased aircraft, which means that if the airline does not acquire the aircraft outright, it would have a long-term dry lease, where its crew would have full operation of the equipment.
Okonkwo says that by this policy the government, through the NCAA, would be imposing business models on the airlines which should be left for operators to decide.
“The Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) is very thankful to the NCAA for its regulatory approach; this oversight has been helpful in the area of safety and comfort. But we think that by the time they step out of that safety regulatory issue and ICAO implementations and delve into the number of aircraft for the airlines, they are now determining the business model for airlines. This should be their prerogative. You may be surprised to know that there are Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) owners who are members of AON and they have only one helicopter servicing oil industry and they are happy with it. They need the AOC to operate, it’s their business model. When you go to other parts of the world, there are people that have two or three copters, servicing one airport to another, they want to remain there, they are not forced to grow.
“The issue is that the number of aircraft you have would not determine how fast you get to your destination, it does not solve the problem of delay because if the problem of delay is as a result of VIP movement, even if you have 100 aircraft, they will remain on land. The problem of delay is due to weather, you can’t land into the airport because the instrument landing system (ILS) is not calibrated or the necessary equipment is not available, there is nothing you can do. Therefore, we think that as soon as all the relevant bodies are able to provide all the necessary infrastructure and create the right environment, this problem will solve itself,” he said.
He added that the policy will also not resolve the problem of delay and aircraft utilisation.
“Only two or three percent of delays are attributed to the operators because every aircraft owner knows that you only make money when the aircraft flies, aircraft on the ground incurs expenses and when the time for maintenance and lease payment [comes], nobody asks whether you fly or not; so it pays us to fly. The only way the operators [make] money is when they sell tickets and it’s only when the ticket is utilised. Even when they come for a refund, we don’t make money from that. We are the number one beneficiary if aircraft leave timely and customers get to their destinations. We know that from practical experience, the solution is not the number of aircraft. Do they intend that there should be some of the aircraft waiting to cover some passengers? That does not make any commercial sense. We believe that they should leave people to choose the number of aircraft they want, but the minimum they have now which is three is good enough.
“Besides that, the few airlines already operating are facing a great infrastructure deficit, some of the airports do have even have enough parking space for the number of airlines that are coming in. The check-in counters are not enough. For manpower. Do they know what it means to say there must be six aircraft, you are tripling the number of manpower needed to fly and maintain them. It will be huge to make this kind of pronouncement within this period of economic downturn. These things must be considered. We think that the space we have at the airports now is not enough, they should expand the airports three times, they need to expand the check-in counters, improve the facilities . Based on the number of aircraft waiting for delivery, in the next two, three years, we should have about 100 new aircraft in this country by existing operators and we are already talking about the need for certain improvements in infrastructure, so I think that should be our focus for now. The focus should also be, how do we work to ensure maximisation of the aircraft we have, aircraft in Nigeria are underutilised, we are only constrained to fly our aircraft for eight hours as against 18 hours due to infrastructure issues. You are attracted to lessors when they know that the aircraft would be utilised,” he added.