Africa: After UAE Spat Nigeria to adopt a Full reciprocity Strategy for Bilateral Air Agreements says Civil Aviation Boss

aeropolitics UAE

Nigeria has said the country will now adopt the strategy of reciprocity in its aviation dealings with other countries, following the row with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in which it cancelled the winter schedule of Emirates Airlines due to country’s refusal to grant Nigerian carrier, Air Peace additional slot requested by the airline.

The country’s civil aviation regulatory agency says it is working on the slot system and it is going to be tit-for-tat.
According to guardian.ng, Capt. Musa Nuhu, Director General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the apex regulatory body of the air transport sector in an interview with WOLE OYEBADE, reflected on the highs and lows of local aviation in 2021, significant gains recorded in operations and the averted policy shift to reciprocity, among sundry issues.

2021 has been another difficult year for global aviation with a marginal rebound in air traffic. What is your assessment of the local industry?
I must say that I am surprised with the domestic aviation industry. We certainly have recovered from COVID-19 pandemic. Not that we have recovered from the COVID-19 level, we have passed the pre-COVID-19 level. Nigerian airlines have been getting clients. Right now, I have about 10 to 12 aircraft on wet-lease to fill in the gap of the demands in the system. So, the industry has done fairly well.

The domestic industry is growing at a very good rate. We have given a lot of Air Operators Certificates (AOC) and we still have about 15 in the pipeline. We are working on it. We have airports coming up all over the place and a lot of maintenance organisations are coming up. For us to have achieved the growth we have now, agencies, the ministry, stakeholders and the media must be doing something right that is building investors’ confidence in the system. The investors are willing to put their money in the system and grow the industry.

READ: Africa: The UAE/Air Peace Aviation Impasse-Why Dubai Should Not Die On The Nigerian Hill.

We will continue on that path in 2022 and hopefully, we will get to a state where aviation will make significant contributions to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), both on a short and medium term remitting at least five per cent. Also, the growth is stretching the infrastructure a bit. So, sometimes, clogs are created here and there.

The international scene is not too bad either. We are recovering gradually and hopefully in early 2022, when we come out with the issues we are having, we should exceed the pre-COVID-19 level of aviation travel. Generally, it has been hectic and stressful for us at the NCAA, trying to cope with the demands, but we will keep doing our best to ensure the system continues to operate safely, orderly and in an organised manner.

The Nigeria-UAE diplomatic row protracted in 2021 and seems to have been resolved. Is Nigeria aiming at a policy shift in defence of local operators?
The government needs to protect Nigerian businesses and Air Peace airline is one of the designated carriers for Nigeria. If we allow other airlines to come and take all the juicy slots, we are shooting ourselves in the leg.

To answer your question, believe me, we are working on the slot system and it is going to be tit-for-tat. Let me use an example and I am not saying that is what we are going to do, but just as an example. If a Nigerian airline is going to the United Kingdom and they insist that the Nigerian airline must buy slots, then any British airlines coming into Nigeria will need to pay for slots too. It is tit-for-tat now. If you tell me a particular airline from Nigeria cannot go to Heathrow because you cannot get slots, then, their airline too cannot come into Lagos because of slot issues.

If you tell me a particular airline from Nigeria must pay, for instance, £100,000 to operate into Heathrow, then, their airline will have to pay the same amount of money to operate into Lagos. It is going to be reciprocity. We cannot keep hiding under slots to give unfair commercial advantages to foreign airlines over Nigerian airlines. We had made mistakes in the past, we have learnt from our mistakes and we are going to correct those mistakes.

Lagos Airport was built for less than 300,000 passengers in 1979 and the airport is doing more than eight million passengers yearly now, and you are telling them your airport is doing above capacity, Lagos Airport is doing far above 1,000 per cent capacity. It is no longer acceptable. No one should come here and tell us stories.

A Nigerian passenger on Asky airline was maltreated at Lome Airport in Togo recently. Has the NCAA acted on the airline?
The security agencies in Togo maltreated some of the Nigerian travellers, who were stranded in that country. But before then, they alleged that the travellers entered the restricted areas at the airport.

The airline has written us a letter, apologising that it will not happen again. So, we are just following up on them to sort things out. I am still talking to the CAA of Togo. The DG is a good friend of mine. We (NCAA) just lodged our complaints officially so that the record will be there, but the airline has apologised. Whatever it is, we will be able to resolve it amicably. Our apologies to Nigerian passengers that were maltreated.

The pandemic is far from over. What is your view on the COVID-19 protocol compliance and efforts at deepening regulations in the sector?
Globally, people are getting COVID-19 fatigued. If you go out, you see a lot of people not wearing their facemasks, except in airports, airlines and other places where we keep educating people that COVID-19 is real and it’s growing into various variants. It is something we just have to consistently do and ensure compliance.

On the issue of inspectors for the NCAA, we are working with the supervising ministry of aviation to see what we can do. We are seeking approval to employ more technical staff, which we have to do. This is government affairs and there are due administrative processes, which we must comply with and follow. Even if you are doing the right thing, there are due processes you must follow. We are working on it and we are making significant progress.

Apart from the ministry and the minister that are supporting us, the Aviation Committees of the National Assembly, through their Chairmen, are supporting us. We have explained to them the challenges and the difficulties we are facing and they too have been assisting us in a way through legislative action, to help us resolve some of the challenges. We are a government organisation and we must comply with the Public Service Rules in all we do.

Also, some of our ICAO standards and recommended practices documents said that “NCAA must be a competitive employer.” What that is saying is that the salaries we pay our workers must be competitive in the industry. Here, we are a government organisation in an industry privately run. So, you can understand how our hands are tied. But we will try to work through the confines of the laws to close that gap so that we can attract more personnel to work with us.

The NCAA has approved new ground handling rates that appear difficult to comply with by the airlines. What is the situation?
The issue of the handling rates was justified because for over 30 years, the handling rates were not adjusted. These ground handlers import a lot of their equipment using foreign exchange, just like the airlines use foreign exchange to procure their machines. So, what affects the airlines, directly affects these ground handlers and the ground handlers are a critical component for the success of the industry.

So, we sat down, compared what we charge here with that of other countries, but because of the devaluation of naira and the non-increase of ground handling over the years, the increase looked very high.

So, the airlines complained. Then, we mediated on the issue, listened to their complaints and reduced the new rates by 25 per cent. We did this so that we don’t shock the system, but we can gradually increase. I just read something this morning that the ground handlers have come together, knowing that their destructive competition is detrimental. So, they are working together now. I think if the ground handlers can work together, they should be able to implement the new rates.

Flight delays and cancellations are more rampant and much to the pains of the travelling public. What is being done to address this?
Obviously, there are going to be delays and cancellations if the weather goes beyond safety limits, which is regulatory in nature. The airline is not to operate in that circumstance. If any airline operates illegally, even if it operates safely, but below the regulatory requirement, we are going to penalise it because that is risking the lives of the passengers.

I am sure none of the airlines will do that because they know the risk involved. We are talking about the lives of human beings. No matter how desperate I want to get to my destination, I need to be safe and be alive. We have spoken with the airlines and they have responded positively. The pilots are professionals, I am sure they will do the right thing.

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