The year 2021 was not particularly bad for the aviation sector in Nigeria despite the ravaging COVID-19. If anything, it was a year the country’s aviation showed promise. Despite that, there were bad and ugly scenes that dotted the sector, reports WOLE SHADARE
The aviation industry crises in Nigeria and around the world have become a study of the forces that are undermining it. No thanks to an almost complete shutdown of both business and international travel, the industry faced substantial losses in 2020. The trend continued in 2021. Although, there was a glimmer of hope as airlines saw remarkable improvement in revenue, which is expected to reach 60 per cent of the 2019 pre-COVID-19 era; a situation that could improve Nigeria’s aviation industry. In fact, it is fair to say that no crisis in modern times shattered the aviation business model as much as the coronavirus pandemic. That’s because no previous crisis had disrupted corporate and international travel as much as COVID-19. Along with causing a depressed market for domestic leisure travel, the pandemic has managed to wipe out two decades of demand growth in a few months.
The year 2021 started with cautious optimism for the Nigerian aviation industry. The carriers’ books were in red with the sector practically down. But for providence and inner strength of the airlines and the resolve by the government and the sector to wriggle out of the precarious situation they found themselves saw to the domestic air travel bouncing back faster than expected. They initially were faced with difficulty in getting enough airplanes for their operations as many of their aircraft were stuck in different MRO’s across the world while many others were locked down in different storage facilities. They lacked the critical mass required for the burgeoning domestic air travel which was equally fueled by high-level security which made air travel the preferred option of travel for many people.
The domino effect of that were delays and flight cancellations which have persisted till today with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) looking the other way and unconcerned. The airlines resorted to quick leases to cushion the effects on their operations. This underscores the fact that virtually all the carriers put together have less than 60 aircraft in their fleet to service over seven million domestic market. It clearly shows that the market is not only small but fragmented for a country with over 200 million population.
Stimulating the sector
Domestic air travel almost immediately bounced back to life far more than international travel. The injection of N4 billion into the revival of the airlines in January set the tone for the seriousness the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, placed on the survival of the sector. Although N4 billion amounted to a drop in an ocean, the carriers’ acceptance of the ‘peanut’ showed that they indeed needed anything that could at least stay afloat. The sector was reported to have been helped by a total of N27 billion to reposition it for survival in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Three outstanding issues
Three issues stood out in 2021 and one that would be carried into 2022. The unresolved issues are the establishment of a national carrier, Nigeria Air, controversy trailing the setting up of Assets Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) backed Nigeria Eagle Airline, concession of the four major airports in Nigeria, and the logical conclusion of the spat between Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over flight rights to Nigerian flag carrier airline, Air Peace. The first three successes or otherwise would define the tenure of Sirika aside from some of his landmark achievements in the sector such as completing the rehabilitation of Abuja airport runway in record time, completion of work on the decrepit Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, provision of critical safety tools for many of the nation’s airports.
More work despite visible achievements
Despite his undeniable achievements, there are many areas that need his attention just as there is ample time still left to achieve them. It takes gut, commitment, higher patriotism to get the remaining jobs done. Two projects that are contentious and seem to have divided friends, colleagues, and experts are airports concession and the plan to float a national airline for Nigeria, which Sirika said would be bequeathed to the country in April 2022 which is just four months away. Issues around lack of structure, personnel, infrastructure, certification, and details on equity holding have pitched proponents of the project against some industry stakeholders. T hey also hinged their pessimism on previous failed promises by the Federal Government to float a national carrier.
Chief Executive of Belujane Consult and a former spokesman for liquidated Nigeria Airways, Mr. Chris Azu Aligbe, said the country needed the carrier now more than ever, stressing that he expected that Nigeria Air would have taken off much earlier, even before the COVID-19 induced economic crisis. Aligbe, however, insisted that Nigerian aviation needed a formidable carrier in the status of a national carrier to go farther than any private carrier could do. He said despite the paucity of global investors, the airline project was an opportunity for investors that would be ready to take the risk. An airline operator, who craved anonymity, said: “If the choice was whether I wanted to have a national airline and pay a shitload of taxpayer money just to maintain the flag on airplanes, compared to having someone else come and fill the void, I’d choose someone else. “If nations want their flags to be carried, they can do it in many other ways.”
Airport concession conundrum
For four years, the Federal Government had been working on the concession of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, Port-Harcourt International Airport, Port-Harcourt, and the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano. The concession of the four aerodromes had reached an advanced stage. In August 2021, the Federal Government in compliance with the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) and National Policy on Public-Private Partnership (N4P) has released a request for qualification for the concession of four international airport terminals and related services. Not long after that, renowned international airport operators were seen jostling for a piece of the pie. The minister had in many fora stated that there was an urgent need for infrastructure investments and modernisation, saying the facilities required investments in runway maintenance, among others. He disclosed that the Murtala Muhammed Airport terminals would bring investment worth over N30 billion annually, which would be aided by the construction of a rail line to link both the domestic and international terminals. Amid the furore of airports concession, experts have cautioned the Minister to ensure transparency in the handling of the entire exercise to ensure that the country gets a good deal.
One of the biggest events of the year was the face-off between Nigeria and the UAE. What started as a child’s play snowballed into a very big diplomatic row between both nations why the NCAA and Sirika decided to cut Emirates 21 frequencies to one in retaliation to the denial by the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) of Dubai to grant Air Peace three weekly flights. Piqued by the action, the Dubai-based Emirates Airlines decided to suspend its operations to Nigeria and in turn issued stringent Omicron protocols that make it impossible for any airline to airlift Nigeria to Dubai despite granting Air Peace seven daily flights to Dubai. It is now left to the Nigerian carrier to see if it has the capacity to make use of the seven frequencies granted to it.
Unwanted red list
One of the ugly scenes was the decision by the United Kingdom to put Nigeria on its Red List following the outbreak of the Omicron virus. Nigeria and other nations like South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, and Namibia found themselves on the infamous list that barred citizens of the countries from going to the UK. The list was trailed by global outrage as nations sympathetic to the listed countries described it as ‘travel apartheid’. Two weeks later, the UK abolished the list as it rescinded its action. Since then, travel from the listed nations and UK had normalized with many able to travel to UK unhindered aside from the normal isolation protocols.
The year 2021 was a year the Federal Government, and by extension, Sirika put machinery in place to pursue the dreams they have for Nigerians in the aviation sector. The year 2022 would be a defining year for them when they crystalise whatever agenda they have for the industry that is highly capital intensive and safety dependent.