Q: How can we get the local aviation industry to operate optimally?
A: Government must realize that aviation is the engine room, driver and catalyst of any economy. We can’t do without aviation. Take it away for just one week and the people will become ungovernable and it could make it impossible for our presidential fleet, which is the most efficiently managed airline in this country to operate. Aviation is very essential. Although, we seem to know what International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recommends but our government isn’t ready to the right thing. It has consistently used the wrong people to head the aviation ministry. Of the 34 ministers of aviation we have had, we have hardly got it right. Aviation minister is political appointment and as such, the appointees have their own agenda even before they are appointed. They know exactly what they want to execute, know how much they have to recoup for their election thus making it difficult to do their job well. Sometimes, they have to learn on the job. I am not saying you have to be an engineer or a pilot to function properly. If my daughter for instance has good business acumen and knows the right expert to hire, she could be a good minister. ECOWAS met in 2002 or thereabout and recommended that because of the peculiarity of aviation in the sub-region, the aviation ministry be separated and made a stream of Ministry of Transportation and not be an isolation. Aviation according to ICAO should rather be an appendage of ministry of transportation with experts and permanent secretary while the minister of transportation liaises with the National Assembly and Federal Executive Council. But when you have just one person as aviation minister and the parastatals are doing their work, the minister becomes jobless and that is why government keep interfering with parastatals to the detriment of safety. Must you have a ministry of aviation, that place must be professional such that the minister can depend on those experts to carry his duties diligently. The ministry of aviation is the only sector that has not been restructured which explains why we have the same gang that misadvised the last 15 serving ministers. The ministry makes mistakes because they are surrounded by wrong people and she would not allow the regulatory authority to do their job. Aviation should be structured in a way ICAO has recommended. Interestingly, we have gone through ICAO and FAA (federal aviation authority- national aviation authority of the United States) audits and the structure is now there but we need to remove government interference and thereafter, make funds available for appropriate places.
Q: Why has it been rather difficult for the local aviation to reassert itself years after the demise of Nigerian Airways?
A: The shoes of Nigerian airways are too big for any airline who wants to step into it. I had the same problem when they were bringing virgin Nigeria and even one of my colleagues said over his dead body. But for me, I said will not die. It will be right in my presence so that we can challenge it. But unfortunately, my colleague already made the prophecy and he was killed about six years ago. Any government that wants to run an airline will damage it. The Nigerian Airways was set up to perform what we call social and security function for the country and it was well performed. We were so proud of what we were doing but people turned round and said we were not making money. We were not set up to make money instead, to develop route. This entire route that these people are running around is what I used my own sweat and my youth to develop and they are getting it for nothing now. This is also an aspect of inhumanity of human to another human that we can use all our youth to develop assets and it’s thrown away and given to other people. I believe that the government was misadvised to have liquidated or rather killed Nigerian Airways. The only way they can come out of it now is that the poor blood are crying from the grave because many of our colleagues that would have been alive are dead because of N500 naira to buy drug. What with their nagging wives, children especially those chased from school for school fees and so on. This is enough to depress some people. We had the opportunity to have done what the Brazilian government did. Those workers were given the option of turning whatever that is given to them as shares. I also wanted to own part of Eddy Airline. The replacement of Nigerian Airways brought about the spending of all its earnings which led to their inability to pay staffs. Their indebtedness is so high that when you look around in another one year, you may find no airline remaining except if the government decides to write off their debts and I will be one of those who will carry placard because Nigerian Airways wasn’t highly indebted and our liability were less than our assets and if the assets were higher than the liability why should you liquidate an ongoing concern. I can see gloom because we say consolidate and they refused. If they don’t merge and complement one another we will have what is called mushroom airline all over the place – none of which can even pay for a spare part .This therefore means that there will be continuous death of carriers including staff and so many people will be delayed and frustrated. If only the airlines can merge to become one or two airlines there may be hope.
Q: Does it mean we lack the prerequisite to manage efficient airlines?
A: Nigeria has enough capital to run aviation business. The Nigerian environment is hostile; not properly planned to cater for aviation business. In other places only crazy people carry cash to buy aircraft. In a proper setting, the industry is structured in such way that aircraft are owned by banks, financial institutions and insurance companies and not by the airlines themselves as we have in Nigeria. But put all the banks together in Nigeria, how many aircraft can they buy? Our banks can’t support aviation business. The aviation industry is not a local business. How to structure this thing is in line with the international measures that have been put in place. The Cape Town Convention made it so possible that the mobile requirements are easily financed now in the world market because the equipments are not stationary. Why don’t we take advantage of the Cape Town Convention, interestingly, the regulatory authority has done all that is needed but the government doesn’t seem to be doing its part.
Q: Do you share the views of some schools of thought that suggest merger options for weaker airlines?
A: Common sense will depict that. But Nigerians wouldn’t subscribe to that arrangement. Nigeria airlines prefer to die rather than merge. So, airlines will continue to die except they merge. The airlines have different safety culture unlike in banking where they all talk about one currency. Here, we are talking about different aircraft with likeable minds. I think we need a body like the Central Bank who can appoint directors to manage the proposed mergers of these airlines and not until we do so we aren’t winning yet. Right now what we have is called the nominated post holders which include safety manager, security and engineering manager as well as chief pilot and so on. But we need to go further such as who can own an airline, how much share can he own? I use to say that we cry so much about the problem affecting the industry. We claim there are so many touts but I say they are the least of our problems. The tout in the board room are more than the ones in the terminal causing the problem. Until we tackle it, we are not winning.
Q: why are you passionately disposed to the return of Dana Air following the suspension of its license after the June 3rd 2012 crash?
A: The question is so well directed. Before the crash of Dana, just at their inception, I was the chairman of Ministerial Committee on Air Force. I had no reservation recommending to the committee members that this is our official carrier. We had to go to the entire airport in the country and with us was an ICAO, International Aviation Organization consultant. I also did a lot of training for their crew. But mind you, once people say you are the best in something watch it something is about to happen. I had an insight to how much effort they were making and also know what the management was doing. I want to commend Dana Air’s ability to manage an aircraft accident of such magnitude. The Public Relations handled the matter in such a critical manner that I was convinced as a Nigerian. So, when the senate said that they were probing an accident, I said it was wrong only AIB can do that. A group was set up that was called technical and administrative panel and I said fowl .We are saying that once the Honorable Minister is surrounded by people who are not knowledgeable enough the end result may be doubtful. The panel submitted a report which was atrocious where they more or less put all the blames on the government, the regulatory authority and on Dana Air as if it was already planned. I said if the government accepts the report, their liability will be unlimited so it should be cancelled. On the part of Dana, I made a publication on their defense. The area where they should have been commended for doing even above the requirements they were condemned which was wrong. Meanwhile the whole world knew what happened. They should have allowed the NECA and the Accident Investigation Bureau to do their job and everything would have been good. Lagos state also put what is called Corona Inquest which doesn’t sound right. We must find the difference in line with Article 38 of the Chicago Convention that we have our own style in connection with Annex 13.
Q: How many planes should an airline have in its fleet and how old should the planes be to operate optimally as a domestic carrier?
A: We have so many foreign laws in the country of which I’m not in support of. To be in domestic operation in Nigeria, you must have two aircraft but on scheduled operation. If it’s just one and you are certified, you will be allowed to do chatter only. When you have two aircraft, it must not be older than 22 years or lesser before it can be registered here in Nigeria. I don’t believe an aircraft has to be a new one to prevent crash but for the fact that it is new and in the hand of an incompetent operator, it is as dangerous as a 30 years old aircraft. An aircraft is not just by the age but the way it is been maintained by the operators following the program and have accomplished all the area we call the manual air wardens directives. The structural inspection are all done, the aircraft can just keep going. But it gets to a stage where the aircraft becomes too expensive to maintain, that’s when you should be thinking of getting a new one.
Q: What is your take on the current tax policy in the local aviation industry?
Maybe that’s why I’m not one of the operators. I don’t know how most of the operators manage to survive up till now. It is obvious the taxes are high and that is why they are not paying their bills. Like I suggested earlier that terminal charges like landing should be less and we should ensure we have facilities everywhere to avoid payment of customs duty for the aircrafts and spare parts. In fact, we should have cheaper fuel; local training centers for crew and at the same time have access to hangers and ensure that aircraft is maintained adequately.
Q: How would you respond to the Upper House resolution asking Airk Air to take over the abandoned air slots of Air Nigeria?
A: I mentioned it that we have a way of doing the right thing the wrong way. What is the business of the House? Are they the ones allocating the slots now or designating airlines? These are bilateral commercial agreement between one country and another. If air Nigeria has abandoned a route, it is left for the regulatory authority to get the respective Ministry to designate another airline. It doesn’t matter which airline. Why must it be Arik?
Q: Going by the new business initiative, isn’t it out of place to get government run aviation business – such as managing an airline?
A: The government of Nigeria will not hand off aviation due to the mere fact that there are people who believe it is an office that allows management or control of an airline. But ICAO does not say government should hands off everything in aviation. ICAO said government should please not continue with the interference in the management of aviation business in their country. This means that they don’t want active involvement in the administration and at the same time, don’t want passive involvement to the extent that they don’t even fund them. What ICAO is advocating is the middle of the road where they don’t fold their hands and watch but are interested in their activities like asking question from time to time such as audit report, budget report at the appropriate time.
Q: Can we meet you and the body you represent, Aviation Roundtable?
A: Aviation Roundtable that I represent is hosted on the ground floor of this main building courtesy of Aero Consult Limited. And by the grace of God, I’m also a co-founder of Aviation Roundtable which is a non-governmental organization but focused on aviation safety in Nigeria. We are set up in order to be a source of advice to government National Assembly on issue of safety. We also organize seminars, conferences, and focus on career counseling to our youths so that they can have a view of what the industry is all about and how they can get into the industry. Aviation journalism is another area of our interest which explains why we don’t decline to talk to journalists. The organization is a steady source of information. I am a retired pilot. I retired in 1989 having flown all the aircraft you can think of at that time – 747, DC 10 etc. I was in management position at various times, Director of Operations. Nevertheless, I voluntarily retired in 1989 and went back to school to study law. So, I am today a practicing lawyer and my area of interest is Aviation Law. Besides, I am a solicitor and advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.