To non-aviators, the sky remains ever large to accommodate just any bird. This, however, isn’t so for airline operators who have seen the space severely constricted in the last four months, no thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant impact on air transportation and revenues.
In Nigeria, the decision by the Federal Government to shut down the airspace against scheduled commercial flights, except for cargo, charter and essential services, led to massive revenue losses for airline operators, airports and regulatory agencies. Although the government has recently lifted the embargo, it is estimated that the industry lost about N21 billion monthly under the period when it was shut down as part of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus. Airlines make money flying within and outside the shores of their home countries, and grounding aircraft in airports around the world meant the streak of losses was not just limited to Nigeria; it took a heavy toll on the global industry, culminating in massive cuts in fleet size and downsizing of the workforce by major airlines in a bid to stay afloat.
Nothing demonstrated the industry’s precarious state like the rush by airlines to take a pie from the little window created by governments around the world in emergency airlift of medical supplies and evacuation of stranded citizens.
In Nigeria, however, airline operators are bemoaning that they were muscled out by foreign airlines and their home governments from taking a pie out of this emergency market. They are also accusing the Federal Government of failing or refusing to pull the necessary strings for them to make a foray into the international emergency airlift and evacuation of stranded passenger market, at least in countries where the bulk of the passengers are Nigerians.
Capacity versus aeropolitics
About 10 years ago, the excuse was the lack of the right aircraft type, financial and manpower capacity by Nigerian airlines to operate international routes. But that can no longer be listed as the demerit of today’s Nigerian airlines like Air Peace, Medview and Azman Air. These have invested in wide-bodied Boeing 777 and Airbus A340 aircraft that places them at equal standing with foreign airlines in terms of the capacity to operate long haul flights.
Sadly, the re-fleeting project, which comes at a huge cost, has not translated to a clearer coast for the Nigerian carriers to participate seamlessly in the airlift of ‘stranded’ COVID-19 passengers to and fro Nigeria.
“Nigerian airlines continue to lose out of the COVID-19 evacuation market, no thanks to aeropolitics,” said Amos Ekaeto, a travel and tour agent. “It is a loss not just to the airlines, but travel agents as well. Some of the foreign airlines have perfected ways of selling tickets abroad to passengers in a manner that Nigerian agents are losing out. This would not be so if the local airlines are allowed to handle the bulk of these international flights. We would have been making more revenue. So, these days, it is no longer about capacity in terms of aircraft fleet. In fact, unable to match the quality of services offered by contemporary Nigerian airlines, their foreign competitors have turned to something else – the game is called international aeropolitics. And too bad, the Nigerian government is not helpful as the local airlines are left to their fate in this game,” he said.
The position was corroborated by the CEOs of Medview Airlines and Air Peace who alleged recently that Nigerian airlines were constantly schemed out of international operations through unfair practices like exorbitant landing and parking charges at some airports by countries that seek to frustrate Nigeria’s private airlines in order to boost the profitability of their own carriers.
For instance, in 2018, while working on opening the Lagos-Abidjan route, CEO of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, said he noticed something odd about the terms given by the Cote d’Ivoire airport authorities. While airlines operating from Abidjan into Nigeria pay less than $1,000 as landing charges, the Nigerian carrier was asked to pay $10,000 or forget flying into the French-speaking West African country. As he shared the taxation disparity with other colleagues, he was informed that the aim was to frustrate the airline out of the route to allow Air Cote d’Ivoire maintain its monopoly into Nigeria.
Daily Sun learnt that what countries that impose these charges seek to achieve is to ensure the over-bloating of the overhead of Nigerian airlines and to stifle their ability to break even. It is a plan that works very well because, should the Nigerian airline increase its airfares to pass on the exorbitant charges paid to fly into these routes on passengers, the majority would opt for airlines with low fares.
The refusal to respond or delay in responding to correspondences is another tactic deployed to frustrate Nigerian carriers, it was gathered. In this regard, an application for a route or landing and take-off permit that should last a few days or a week could be delayed for months.
“It happened while we wanted to fly into Togo. They refused to respond to correspondences From Air Peace so that we wouldn’t challenge the monopoly of Asky that was flying from Lome to Nigeria. We see these things very often. These unfair practices against Nigerian airlines are done by foreign airlines that are given red carpet treatment when they come to Nigeria. It’s the type of aeropolitics we are exposed to and it is condemnable,” said Air Peace CEO, Onyema.
Nigeria is a signatory to the Single Africa Air Transport Market (SAATM), a policy that seeks to promote unhindered operations of commercial flights among member states in a bid to encourage inter-state trade and commerce. Nigeria is also a signatory to about 88 Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASAs), which means its airlines have the right to reciprocity on routes where foreign airlines fly into Nigeria. Sadly, this has never been the case. Take the lucrative London and Dubai routes, for instance. It is believed that Virgin Nigeria, Medview Airlines and Arik Air all lost out on these routes due to aeropolitics.
Managing director/CEO of Medview Airlines, Muneer Bankole, who corroborated Onyema’s stance, said some countries were deliberately engaging in these unfair practices against Nigerian airlines in negation of the law of reciprocity.
“Appropriate policy statementa regulating double taxation needs to be quickly looked into in conjunction with the exorbitant cut-throat charges levied against Nigerian carriers,” said Bankole at a seminar organised by aviation journalists in Lagos.
The COVID-19 experiences
In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the disadvantaged position that Nigerian carriers find themselves in their bid to operate internationally. It has also confirmed the notion that the Nigerian government is weak, or unwilling, to fight the cause of private airlines operating as flag carriers on international operations.
Although Air Peace, Medview and Azman have the requisite aircraft and manpower capacity to ferry Nigerians from anywhere in the world back home, they are, however, relegated to the back bench as major international carriers like Air France/KLM, British Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and Emirates, among others, continue to take the greater chunk of the market.
A senior airline official told Daily Sun that, sometimes, it is not just about correspondences not being responded to or arbitrary increases in taxes. He noted that even when permits are eventually given, Nigerian airlines are often denied the right to land at terminals where they would be seen to be in competition with carriers of the foreign country on flimsy excuses. He cited the case where Air Peace was denied the permit to operate into Canada and the United Kingdom as a demonstration of the obnoxious aeropolitics against Nigerian carriers.
He said, in the last three months, no fewer than 3,000 Britons were repatriated home from Nigeria amid the COVID-19 pandemic on 12 special flights operated by UK airlines. In the same way, over 300 Nigerians were evacuated from the UK aboard a British airline. But once Air Peace successfully evacuated 315 Nigerians from London to Nigeria, at a much reduced fare, the next attempt by the Nigerian airline to secure a landing permit into the UK was frustrated.
“A lot of obstacles are erected against Nigerian airlines to ensure they lose out on a route. I see this happen very often. You could actually make a demand for Heathrow Airport. It is expensive though, but because you could be at direct competition with a British carrier flying into Lagos or Abuja, they can instead offer you Gatwick,” said a spokesperson for a Nigerian airline who wouldn’t want to be named.
“If you come with lower or competitive fares for Nigerian passengers on a foreign route, they get so infuriated and you become like an endangered species and they quickly gang up against you to throw you out on any flimsy excuse. The COVID-19 evacuation operations have exposed how disadvantaged Nigerian airlines are in international operations because foreign airlines continue to dominate the business even when Nigerian airlines have the capacity. And we continue to lose millions of dollars, which would have been retained in our banks,” he added.
Cost to country
The dominance of foreign airlines in Nigeria’s skies has not been helped by the absence of a national carrier with government equity and interest. This leaves private airlines at the mercy of fate, which sometimes works against their foray into foreign routes, as government officials that ought to help appear reluctant to do so.
But it is a mistake that comes with an attendant loss to the country’s quest to diversify earnings into the non-oil sector. Aviation can certainly attract huge revenues to the Nigerian government, if properly harnessed. But at present, it contributes a meagre 0.14 per cent to the GDP. Data by the Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON) estimates that the country was losing about $3 billion annually as capital flight to foreign airlines. It is an amount that the foreign airlines would do anything to keep, including unfair practices that shut out Nigerian carriers flying into their country.
According to the chairman of the AON, Capt. Noggie Meggison, leaving the space for foreign airlines to dominate has not only led to capital flight, but has also stunted the growth of the local industry. Meggison said over 500 local pilots were roaming the streets in search of jobs, adding that this should not have been so had the local airlines been allowed to engage in routes expanding programmes that allow them buy new aircraft and engage more pilots.
Enough is enough
Ekaeto, the travel and tour operator, alleged that foreign airlines often collaborate with officials of Nigeria’s Aviation Ministry to sabotage the country’s local airlines. It is an allegation often levelled against regulatory and government officials in Nigeria, but it has been denied by government.
Ekaeto shed mowre light on how this graft is perpetrated. His words: “We see situations where the Federal Government wants to open a new route under a Bilateral Air Service Agreement with a foreign government, and, during the negotiation and signing of the BASA, all the officials involved are from the government and the foreign airlines.
“There is no representation whatever from the Nigerian airline industry who should be the ones that will reciprocate the BASA by flying into the foreign country, just as their airline flies into Nigeria in line with the BASA. That is where the sabotage starts; they find collaboration with officials from Nigeria. It is the same sabotage that allows multiple routes to be allocated to foreign airlines to fly into Lagos, Kano, Enugu, Abuja, and Port Harcourt, when a Nigerian airline is not being allowed to fly into Dubai or London. And nothing has changed with the COVID-19 operations. Or is it not curious that the government has been very quiet or silent in the past couple of weeks that Nigerian carriers have been shut out from operating into some routes to airlift stranded Nigerian passengers?
“Our government officials continue to favour foreign airlines against Nigerian carriers. They benefit from it. Everything is shrouded in secrecy. It is the reason you see members of the National Assembly constantly kicking against the disadvantaged position of Nigerian airlines in international operations.”
“Nigerian airlines won’t succeed, given the policies we have today. We must begin to have policies that protect indigenous investments,” Onyema said.
The Nigerian said the Nigerian government should wake up from its slumber and say “enough is enough” and take bold steps to protect local airlines.
“Local operators would also appreciate if the Federal Government reciprocates the ill-treatment and exorbitant charges on Nigerian airlines by making the foreign airlines pay same to serve as a deterrent and protect the local airline industry. The reason Nigerian airlines are tossed up and down by foreign countries they seek to fly into is because these countries have realised that our government is weak and cannot protect its own. Once there is reciprocity, these bad treatments will end,” said an airline spokesperson.