In an exclusive interview with the Punch Newspaper, the Director General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (DGCA), Dr. Musa Nuhu, shed light on the formidable challenges gripping the aviation industry in Nigeria.
Foremost among these challenges, according to Dr. Nuhu, is the staggering costs of operations that operators face.
Dr. Nuhu went on to express concern over the state of most state-owned airports, characterizing them as “moribund.” This revelation casts a shadow over the infrastructure and functionality of airports under state ownership, raising questions about their viability and operational status.
The interview serves as a wake-up call for stakeholders in the aviation industry and policymakers to address the pressing issues of high operational costs and the condition of state-owned airports. The narrative unfolding in the aviation sector underscores the need for strategic interventions to revitalize infrastructure and ensure the sustainability of aviation operations in Nigeria.
Read the full interview…
One of the issues the airline operators have raised in the last couple of months is that the NCAA, by extension, the Federal Government, does nothing to make sure that the BASA agreement regarding reciprocity is adhered to. And then, in terms of flight schedules and destinations, that the federal government doesn’t do anything, especially the NCAA to help them get better deals. How true is this sir?
I’ll categorically tell you that it’s absolutely false. The airlines are designated to fly country X. They go to country X and negotiate with them without informing the NCAA. So, how can I help you when I’m not aware of what you are doing? The few airlines that have come to us for help, we’ll resolve the issues within a couple of hours. Sometimes, it just takes a phone call from the DG to his counterpart DG, and it gets done. We have fought with some European countries and we’ve got Third Country Operator, for our airlines to operate in these countries. You know, it’s sad and unfortunate, even within this, Aviation African Summit, when my colleagues from other countries, at least three or four countries came and told me, an airline from your country applied to fly into our country. Why didn’t you assist?
I said, they didn’t come through me, they went directly through you. If you are designated to operate in another country, normally you should come to the NCAA; we’ll write and introduce you to that country. And we’ll follow up and assist you. Ibom Air came. Do I have any issues? It took me less than five minutes with a single phone call to resolve that issue. The operators must know how to use the resources available to them. If you go as a private enterprise negotiating with government agencies, you run into a problem. You come to NCAA, we talk to them, and we send our experts to go with you to negotiate with them. We even involve the Nigerian Embassy or high commission in that country to go and talk on behalf of the airlines. But when operators go on their own and they run into difficulties, they start crying wolf. They need to take the first step by involving us in that.
Nigeria has successfully hosted the 7th Aviation Summit in Abuja, what does the country stand to benefit from this?
The whole purpose of this was to bring the international aviation community to come to Nigeria and see what our country is all about; the opportunities in Nigeria and to clear the wrong perception of Nigeria being a bad and dangerous place and specifically for the aviation industry to come and see the opportunities in the sector in the country. You can see all the major big boys came, Boeing, Airbus, Embraer and many other organisations. In fact, after the event, there was a signing ceremony between one of the Nigerian airlines, ordering about 10 planes from Embraer. So, it is an exposure and we have seen a lot of discussions between Nigerian organisations and the potential investors in the industry. The government has said it wants to make Nigeria the Centre of African aviation and we need this kind of exposure for people to see the potential and come and invest in our country.
What do you say about Abuja and Lagos as the most expensive airports in the world with about 27 revenue charges imposed on airlines?
I think the Ministry of Aviation and Aerospace Development established a committee to look at these multiple charges to see how they can be streamlined. But what we need to understand is that a lot of these charges are not from the aviation agencies, but are more in the cargo area. All sorts of people, some are illegally making these charges. So, aviation will start, at least we will consolidate and see where we can streamline and merge those charges and see what can be done. But these charges have nothing to do with aviation aeronautical charges. It is the other organisations that are in the airport that put these charges. But, sometimes as Nigerians, we need to all sit down as a team and see the damage we are doing to our country. Like in Lagos, there are so many charges. By the time you pay those charges, your products are not even competitive anymore. That is why you see a lot of planes bringing in cargo, and they leave empty, because exports are not viable and lots of these are charged by plethora of these agencies. It is really hurting us.
When the Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development, Festus Keyamo toured the Lagos airport, he said he is going to recognise the Civil Aviation Act 2022 that gives NCAA autonomy on air safety. Some claimed that NCAA autonomy is eroded by the ministry, how do you intend to change this?
That is not my experience as the DG of NCAA. I cannot speak on what happened before me and we have to determine and understand the autonomy of the NCAA. The NCAA is a government organization and it cannot exist without the government. Autonomy of NCAA is on its regulatory functions, our safety regulatory function that is where we have our autonomy. But there are other government regulations and financial regulations that the NCAA must comply with. The NCAA cannot exist on its own and we cannot say nobody in government should talk to us.
There is no civil aviation authority like that anywhere in the world. But, when we take safety decisions, like grounding of an Airline X, then there is intervention that we should reverse that action, then that is interference with the regulatory function. My own experience since I became the DG, I have not experienced that even once. And like the new minister has said, he will respect that. And the first meeting I had with him, he said ‘I am a lawyer, I have gone through the Civil Aviation Act, and NCAA is a very powerful organisation and has a very powerful DG.’ But, if you don’t use power properly, you will do more damage than fixing things. So, you have to be very careful that you don’t get carried away. And what is the purpose of the NCAA? To promote the aviation industry, basically that is what it is. So, we work with all stakeholders. We have grounded a few airlines when we believed that safety was going to be compromised, we just have to take action.
Do you think Nigerian airlines are making profit?
Nigerian airlines are operating in a very difficult environment. An airline cannot operate in isolation of the economy it is operating in and the Nigerian economy is in very difficult times. The cost of financing is 25 per cent. That is killing to start with. You take a loan and you are paying 25 per cent of whatever you make to the bank. You are not talking of your expenses, your cost, your current and long-term liabilities. Quite a few of them are in financial strait and some are okay. So, that is the way it is. It is a very difficult environment for the airlines and we also do sincerely sympathise with them and we will try and see where we have flexibility to make life easy for them. Like the issue of insurance, the insurance is from Lloyds of London, from another country, while it requires a huge amount of foreign exchange.
Normally, insurance they say is for one year, but we know an airline that has 20, 30 aircraft like Air Peace for it to pay insurance is a huge task, that is why we say pay quarterly, at least to reduce the financial burden, especially on the requirement of getting foreign exchange at a time. So, we try to assist the airlines in that area, and those who have debts, we reach an agreement with them. If I have N1 billion with you, I am not asking you to pay that N1 billion to me, because if I do that, I am going to kill your business. So, we reach a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and they pay an amount that will not cripple their operation. But also, they have to pay a reasonable amount to clear those outstanding debts. Those are the areas we have flexibility with the industry.
One major area of focus of this summit is the issue of SAATM, and when you look at the presentation of AFCAC, they talked about the fact that we have only been able to achieve 11th and 5th freedom since we started this implementation. What are some of the challenges that you have seen in Africa bothering on the effective implementation of the policy?
Well, there are quite a few challenges about SAATM, since the new Secretary General, Ms. Adefunke Adeyemi, of Nigeria became AFCAC Sec. Gen. She has done excellently well. She is really promoting SAATM and we can see changes coming. Maybe slowly, but it is a start, it is coming. To me, one or two of the main issues we have with SAATM is that we compare ourselves with Europe, but Europe has one regulatory body, EASA. In Africa we have 24 different regulatory bodies with 24 different regulations. So, this makes it difficult. Until Africans learn to be one and have a single regulatory body like EASA, the problem will persist. Then if you are coming from a country with a requirement and you come to Nigeria, I start giving you another requirement that is a very difficult thing to do. But in Europe, they have one political organisation, the European Commission. They make their policies and it is applicable to all. But, here everybody does his own policies and go their own way. Honestly, unless we find a way to resolve these issues, even if SAATM is implemented, it is not going to achieve its potential. As I said during my speech, we have started talking informally to some DGs of some four, five countries to see how we can look at our regulations to have some kind of harmonisation between these countries. Do you know what it does if you have harmonization? We will do training together, there are many things we can do together. If an airline is coming from Country A to Country B and we have harmonisation, it is like a local flight. So, to me that is the way to go. We want to start, and I hope we are able to hit the ground running on that and when other countries see that it is succeeding, everybody wants success, and everybody will want to join the band.
A few days ago, the sector was audited by ICAO. What do you have to say on the score of Nigeria and how do you think all those open items can be closed?
Unfortunately, some said Nigeria failed and we all know that in ICAO, you don’t fail or pass, there are some open items that are given time to close. They audited Nigeria and we got 70 per cent, which is below the global average, but we moved up and we did not get any significant security concerns. We met the authority and the industry in a very difficult time, and I keep saying that we are not developing the system for the sake of passing an audit. We are developing the system for sustainability, to function the way it is supposed to function, audit or no audit. We are not here to pass audit. I am not here to make ICAO happy while my people are suffering. It is good to get a high score, but I don’t want us to get 90 per cent, then you come back three months later and we have gone back to our old habits. So, in ICAO, there is no pass or fail. There is a target, if you don’t get the target, ICAO will send you a report with the protocol questions. And you use that, they give you three months to develop an action plan and close some of those gaps and send it back to them.
There are a couple of areas we didn’t do very well in Nigeria and one of the areas is the certification of airports. It is very critical; we lost 10 points or more in the area of certification of airports. And to be honest, we refused to certify the airports, because the airports did not meet the requirement for certification. If we had done certification and then ICAO comes and sees that they did not meet the requirement, then our credibility goes to zero and we would have failed woefully and we would have all sorts of significant safety concerns. The reputation of Nigeria will be damaged; the Nigerian airlines and everybody will suffer for that. But to be honest, in the last one or two months with the current Managing Director of FAAN, we have made progress. But to be honest, it came too late for us to do certification before the audit. We have all agreed, going forward we are going to do the certification. And there is nothing like this organisation did well, that organisation didn’t. It is all wrong, it is Nigeria. When you go to ICAO, they are not going to tell you the NCAA did 100 per cent, FAAN did 50 per cent, NAMA did 60 percent, there is nothing of such. It is Nigeria they are going to put there and we must collaborate and work together. Different sections in the NCAA got different scores.
Airworthiness got 94 per cent. They went from 90 to 94; that is almost perfect. Then we had the airport, because of lack of certification, most had 56 per cent. Then we have air navigation services, we had lots of problems both on the NCAA and NAMA sides. So, it is those areas that really dragged us down.
Operation was at 52 per cent, they went up about 11 points. Still a bit poor, but at least, the direction is in the right trajectory. And we will continue working as work has started already. We are not even waiting for the ICAO report, we know where we have issues and the work has started. And by the time we finish airport certification and other things…there is what they call ICAO Coordinated Validation Mission. It means that after you have done your audit and you think you are okay, you invite ICAO, but this time around you pay for it. They will come and look at you to validate all the actions you have said you have done and then your score goes through the roof. And I am sure if we work collaboratively with the support of the press, the ministry, the entire industry, believe me, our scores will shoot through the air. At least the audit has shown us where we are. If we were deceiving ourselves or we were blinded by it, now it is quite obvious and we will work in resolving those areas.
What do you say about the proliferation of state-owned airports and the role of the NCAA in this?
There are two processes of building airports. First is the policy side, which the ministry gives. So, if you want to build an airport, you will write to the Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development. The ministry will form a committee, comprising the Aerodrome department of the ministry. NCAA will be part of it and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria and Nigerian Airspace Management Agency will go through the feasibility study of the airport. They will visit the site to ensure these things are perfect. They will ascertain that you have a good business case and that everything is okay. The committee comes back, and the minister will recommend and give approval. It comes to NCAA, we start building the airport, it gets to 70 per cent and then everything fritters. There are quite a few airports like I told you that are built and they have not even met the requirements. So much money has been spent, but they have not reached the minimum requirement. And the unfortunate part that people don’t see is that many a times these State governments handover the airports to FAAN, this is because they are much and the NCAA needs more aerodrome inspectors. It is a burden on me. So, we must inspect it and make sure it is okay. NAMA has to employ and train more air traffic controllers. These are things people don’t see; it is a burden on us. And these airports do not even generate money; there are airports that have one or two flights a week. Some are even executive flights. Honestly, we must collectively find a way to deal with that because for me, even as a CAA it is putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on us.
How has the compulsory contribution of the 40 per cent revenue generation to the federation account affected your performance as a regulator?
Whatever we do, the government takes 40 per cent at source. If Air Peace pays me 10 million naira to go and inspect their aircraft for instance, the government takes 40 per cent out of it. I can’t tell Air Peace to go and give the government N4 million, so I have to take from my own money to conduct the aircraft inspection for it. NCAA is an authority and FAAN is also referred to as an authority, don’t you think there is a conflict of interest? We also give instructions to FAAN and they must comply. And we are the only regulatory body. Both FAAN and NAMA have some residual authority, regulatory functions; that is the main reason for review of the Civil Aviation Act.
This is so that all the regulatory functions are imposed on the NCAA alone. I can give you an example, the Port Harcourt Airport, they met the requirement and we instructed FAAN and they did the Notice To Airmen (NOTAM). They must comply with the NCAA, but we try to have a good symbiotic relationship with them. So, NCAA is the regulator of everybody in the industry. Anything that is civil that flies in Nigeria is under the regulatory function of the NCAA.
What is the importance of MRO facilities to the aviation industry?
Well, MRO is a business; I cannot force anybody to go into MRO business. All we do, if you want to establish an MRO, you come and we give you the requirements and we ensure you comply with the requirements. And if you get it, we approve you as an MRO organisation. So, it is a business, it is like setting up an airline. It is for the benefit of the airlines; they can collaborate and work together. It is to their own benefit we encourage that, but we cannot regulate cooperation and working together because they are private businesses. It is up to them to decide what they really wanted to do. I have seen MRO at Uyo Airport; the hangar they have is amazing. And my own understanding is that they ordered some 10 Airbus aircraft in 2020 and Airbus built an MRO there. And also they built a terminal. By the way, Asaba Airport is a state airport. The State Government concessioned it to a private firm; there is no runway in Nigeria that is as beautiful as Asaba Airport in terms of runway lighting and markings and everything. And that is what we expect the State governments to do. You should build an airport based on the economic activities around there that would generate traffic. You don’t build an airport to create activities. So, a lot of people build to create economic activities and they run into problems.
How many of your technical staff have you lost to greener pastures or poaching in the industry?
So many of our staff leaves the agency regularly. That is the problem of salary. You are earning N500, 000 monthly and a particular airline comes and gives you N1.5 million monthly, what are you going to do? It is unfortunate but that is the way it is and that is why we need to be removed from that salary structure. Kenya as of two years ago pays some of its technical staff about $10,000 monthly and they were going to increase it. So, you pay your people peanuts and you expect them to do magic, that is not possible. A few weeks ago, XeJeT Airlines was suspended for criminal conduct when it falsified insurance documents, but within a week, the suspension was lifted off the airline, what has changed? The issue of XeJeT Airline is a bit complicated and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission was involved. There were fake certificates; so we had to take action to protect the travelling public. And when we did, we sorted it out, we sent the certificates to the National Insurance Commission, the regulator of the insurance industry and they told us some of the certificates were fake. So, we grounded them till they sorted it out. We initially thought that the certificate that was used for the Air Operator’s Certificate application was also fake, but it turned out that it was okay. But, there was an aircraft that the certificate was a no, no. So, that aircraft was grounded and we had to release them. We have had a meeting with NIACOM and we are going to set up a committee, we are going to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, all the insurances for the entire industry, even us, our own insurance for our buildings, cars and others, we are going to make them verify for many reasons.
Meanwhile, you can have a valid insurance but the package does not cover the risk it is carrying. So, these are very pertinent things we need to look into. And to be honest, we have extended our hand to so many organisations and they are willing to work with us. That is the only way different government organisations will have to work with each other. We have signed so many MoUs, we have signed with the Ministry of Communications, we have signed with the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Agency, Standards Organisation of Nigeria, and there are many other organisations that we are working with at the moment. They are not directly aviation, but their activities impact aviation, so we need to work together especially the regulatory agencies. It is beneficial to everybody. At the end of the day, who gains? It is the nation.