Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) Captain Musa Nuhu in this interview with aviation correspondents talked on many issues ranging from safety in the industry to defragmentation of Civil Aviation Act to encourage General Aviation. The DG also spoke about the uniqueness of the aviation sector in Nigeria and how somehow, it is still growing despite major setbacks globally. ANTHONY OMOH was there. Excerpts:
Why did it take NCAA such a long time before it acted on Azman Air?
WELL, as a regulatory body, we take the issue of safety utmost. That is our number one priority including safe operation of our airlines, or any operator. However, before we take action, we must have concrete evidence. We must have a trend. We see what is happening and we do a risk based analysis and we decide to take action. This is because grounding an airline has serious repercussions both on the availability of service to the public and also to the finances and reputation of the airline. I don’t think we were slow.
When we reached a point that we were not happy, we called a Zoom meeting. I could have taken the decision on my own, but I am a human being and I know I have my shortcomings. So, I called my entire team. We had a Zoom meeting for about 4 to 5 hours before we came to that decision to suspend their operations. I want to say here clearly that it is not a punitive measure. It is our responsibility and duty to guide and work with the operators and assist them to ensure that they are in compliance with our regulations.
As I am talking to you, our team met with Azman team and we had a very good discussion. We told them what the issues were. We have written them before that and they responded. And we said we need to sit down with them. We had a virtual meeting. We had a very good discussion and they went through each of the issues one by one. I must tell you the response we had from Azman has been very encouraging and very positive. They are taking all what we have explained to them. Now they understand it is even better for them to improve their business model. I have seen a shift and I can guarantee you that by the time Azman complies with all what we want, the public will see a different Azman airline.
That is our purpose. We are not here to kill anybody or to ruin any airline, but to guide them to operate safely, efficiently and to provide the necessary services to the travelling public. I just received a very impressive response from them concerning what they have done. We are going to start serious training for their people next week.
Where we find gaps, they have already started employing people and they are really working and cooperating. Honestly, I am very happy and feel very relieved at their response to us.
What was the situation of the airline before NCAA granted it an AOC?
I can guarantee you that our actions have nothing to do with Azman Air. In fact, the reference they made in their press release was referring to me as a person. Even, before I became the DG, I have nothing to do with the organization. It is true these people come through the NCAA. We have what we call the management staff, some people give them the clue that key post holders have to meet certain requirements. I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there when they were approved. I came and met them, but I think it is my responsibility as the DG, when I see there is a mistake, an error or something wrong, I have to rectify it, which is exactly what we are working at, trying to rectify whatever might have been done wrong in the past.
Also, NCAA is an organization too, in transition. We are trying to change the organization to put it at a higher level. Honestly, this Azman incident told us a lot about ourselves, areas that we might have found some deficiencies and we are trying to fill it and make some changes to really make the organization much more effective and efficient. We have had issues with some airlines, they came and we sat down them. We discussed with them and we resolved it.
Unfortunately, in this particular case when somebody goes to the public and impugns the credibility of an organization, we need to defend our action as an organization. What I want you to understand is that it is not we as a person and not even the DG, it’s not NCAA, but Nigeria’s reputation that is being damaged in the international space. If NCAA is somehow perceived as a corrupt organization, believe me that all the operators and aviation businesses in Nigeria will have it difficult going to charter or lease aircraft. It makes the whole business much more difficult for us. It damages the industry. That is why we had to come out and explain to the world what happened.
We don’t have any airline accident in the last 5 years and God forbid there will not be any during my tenure. Not only the accident, the number of incidents too that people will not hear about. We want to bring it out to make the system much safer. When you have these incidents, you use your equipment much more, instead of grounding the airlines because they have incidents, they do more flights and system becomes more efficient, effective to the benefits of the travelling public.
What is the current state of auditing of Azman Air?
Be careful with social media. I have seen pictures in social media that somebody said it is in Nigeria. I looked at the picture and I looked at the site and it is not even in Nigeria. So, let’s be careful what we read in social media. Yes, some might be true, but I can tell you the issue of Azman Air is going on well. We are working towards resolving it and hopefully soon. We are not going to release to anybody until we are satisfied.
Can you shed more light on the Air Peace tyre burst or tyre puncture incident that happened on the runway of Lagos Airport, recently?
We work hand in hand with AIB. It is even required by the regulations that we work hand in hand. When there is an incident, AIB-N goes to investigate. If it is a serious incident or accident, they deal with it. If it is not a serious incident, they hand it over to NCAA to inspect it, but when they did their investigation and they are ok, they hand it over to NCAA to work with the airline to ensure that the aircraft is put back to an airworthy condition before it can fly. AIB doesn’t do that. That is our responsibility. They were happy. They were working with it and they handed it over to us.
Honestly, the support I get from the government, except the Minister coming here and sitting down, nobody in the government has ever called me and told me to reverse my decision. Nobody! There are times the Minister had taken some decisions. He was not aware of some information, and I call him and tell him and he reverses the decision. Nobody in government has ever called me to reverse or take any decision. I don’t deal with personalities, but what I see is the safe operation of the aircraft. I don’t care who is in the aircraft, whether he is the President or an Almajiri. What I see is the safety operation.
In other climes, airlines are shutting down, but in Nigeria more airlines are coming up at this time, what does this portend for our industry?
What is the population of Nigeria? How many passengers travel domestically before covid-19? What percentage of Nigeria is that? If it is six or five per cent of the Nigerian population that tells you that Nigeria is under-travel.
There is a huge market there. Nigerian market is not mature enough. There is a huge opportunity there for the Nigerian market to grow. That is why you see that many airlines are coming up in the country. We have Green Africa Airways, NG Eagle and so many other airlines coming up. I am sure that Green Africa Airways, NG Eagle are the next to fly. The market is there. It is economics.
Unfortunately, because of the condition of the roads, a lot of people prefer flying by air. So, the demand is growing and that is why you see many airlines growing. I can tell you that out of the 9 million that are said to be travelling within Nigeria, only probably one million people are flying regularly. So, maybe only one or two million people travel in Nigeria, in a population of 200 million. It is still a virgin market. If we uphold our policies and strategies, we will make a friendly-environment in the industry and it will grow.
That is why in the Ministry and with aviation roadmap, they want to do things like aircraft leasing company, MROs which are some of the things that make maintenance cost. You know airlines go to Europe for maintenance, but when we have am MRO, it creates employment and you just rolled in your aircraft and do your maintenance in there in Naira.
You don’t have to go to CBN looking for $100,000. It takes you six to seven biddings and your aircraft is on ground for two months, you are waiting for money. So these are part of the processes and strategies that are being put together to help the industry grow.
What are you doing to develop the General Aviation in Nigeria?
Honestly, when you talk about General Aviation, you touched something that is close to my heart. General Aviation is the basis of any successful aviation industry. Successful aviation industry in any country has a good General Aviation. It provides the people the basis such as experienced pilots, airlines provide experienced management staff and engineers. So, when the airlines employ them, it costs them less to train them because they already have some level of experience not direct from flying school.
As regards the promotion of general aviation policy, we have the Civil Aviation Act before the National Assembly. Hopefully, it will be passed very soon and passed into law. So, once that is done, and we know what the new NCAA mandate is, we will do a stakeholders meeting for review of our regulations. I think we need to de-clutter and unbundle our regulations so that the requirements from general aviation is different from the requirements of the airlines. They are not the same risk. So, we need to unbundle those regulations, General Aviation could be Chartered flights, agric spraying, small tourism aircraft, ambulance and others.
There are so many areas of general aviation, but right now, regulations are bundled, somebody flying corporate and small plane carrying 10 people and you are asking for the same requirements from a Boeing 777 going to Dubai. It doesn’t make sense. So, when we unbundle those regulations, we believe it is going to stimulate the general aviation part of the industry. And when that is done, all these excess pilots and the people that don’t have jobs will be absorbed. They will get experienced and move on to the bigger airline industry. General Aviation is very critical.
Can you say Nigerian airlines are benefitting from the Cape Town Convention about a decade later?
Not very well, no. Because we have cases where people go and lease aircraft, come to Nigeria. They don’t pay and they don’t want to release the aircraft. So, it creates a bad reputation for the Nigerian market. That is why I tell you, when you do things. It is not one person. You are damaging the reputation of the country. So, when you go now and you want to lease aircraft, they will say that when the aircraft is due to return, you will go and bring one court injunction and you damage the whole country. It is damaging. Since I came onboard, I have successfully dealt with three cases with Cape Town Conviction. There was an airline that took some engines and they don’t want to return them, we fought for it. There was a helicopter that was seized, we fought for it and they released it. There was an aircraft that we let go. If we don’t do that people don’t feel safe allowing their equipment into your country, even if you are doing, you pay excess and you pay a premium on the ongoing market rate and whatever profit you think you are going to make is wiped off.
Do we have enough safety inspectors to inspect operations?
We certainly do not have enough inspectors. It is an issue that we discussed when we had a meeting with the Ministry. There are issues of condition of service. ‘I cannot come and work for NCAA and I am 40 or 45 years old to come and start earning 25 per cent or 30 per cent because I want to work for NCAA’. It was a very unfortunate situation. I for one cannot unilaterally address that issue. So, we have documents from salary wages commission. We met the Chairman and he confirmed they are working on it. That will resolve the issue on short term, but I am looking at the issue on a longer term solution. Because what is happening now, especially flight inspection operators, people in their retirement, they fly till 60 or 65 and retire. It is not a Nigerian issue.
Flight operation inspectors is a global issue, even United States and Europe have that problem because the government cannot pay what the airlines are paying. But, we can put certain conditions to make it attractive for people, pre-retirement, who will come here out of career for 10 or 15 years. I am not against hiring people who are retired because they have certain experiences that we need.
We should have the right mix with young people who will be in the system, growing and learning from them who will be there 10 to 15 years. Because if you have somebody retired, he comes, he works four to five years and he goes, it has a high turnover rate and that affects the continuity of the system. It is not very efficient because you spend a lot of money to train people who will just work for four to five years. I will rather have a right combination of them.
Those elderly people are very critical and very important because they are certain knowledge and skills that you can only from them. But, also we still need the younger ones so that they can bring some kind of stability in the system. It is something we are working on and it is a long term plan.
Do you think Nigerian Airlines are charging the appropriate fares and what is NCAA doing about the forex issues?
The Minister has been to the CBN and he is doing what he can, but because of the scarcity of forex, the government has its own policy on priotisation. The minister has been fighting for the airlines since when I was working in his office. To be honest, I can make a strong case to consider this people, but we can help ourselves by supporting the MROs that the government is trying to do. That will significantly reduce the amount of forex airlines would need. If we can do those things in Nigeria, not only that we will reduce the outflow of forex, it will also create employment for us. It is a double win for the country.
For the fares, it has to do with the economics of demand and supply. Don’t forget because of this forex difficulty, airlines are not operating their fleet at full capacity. That also has impact. If one of the airlines is out of the system, you try to fill that gap. That will put extra demands on the other routes.
Earlier, you mentioned the issue of not using the right fleet. Yes, but the trend I see people going for Embraer, CRJ, ATR. So, there is a paradigm shift. People are beginning to realise you can’t use Boeing 737 aircraft for short flights. I can see Air Peace had got an E-195, he is gotten two and he said on the long term, he is going to replace all its B737. United Nigeria is using Embraer 145.Green Africa is using ATR 42, 72.
There is one that has started processing its documents; he wants to use Embraer 145. Chanchangi wants to come back and they want to use ATR. They are planning to come back. The demand is there. The thinking is changing because this B737 business is not working for us. It is going to take a while. The economics is forcing the change. It is a positive change in the industry