Lagos — Capt. Noggie Megisson, the Executive Chairman of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), in this interview, speaks on the challenges confronting airline operators and the aviation sector.
What is your view on the state of aviation in Nigeria?
Nigeria needs to start looking at aviation as something that will contribute to its financial basket. It is shameful and painful that 50 years after independence and 60 years after the establishment of the West African Airlines Association, our aviation industry is still in its teething, crawling age.
The time is now for the Nigerian aviation sector to wake up and contribute as it should to the economy. Nigerians travel by air a lot. One foreign airline did a turnover of over $2 billion, while another made over $2 million profit, with Nigeria their most profitable route. Nigeria has the highest seats per mile rate anywhere in the world, but what have been the mutual benefits of those bilateral air services agreements (BASAs) signed with the Nigerian government, in terms of financial gains, skills and employment of our youths? It is zero. An airline, for example, has been coming here for the past 40, 50 years using the same type of airplane, yet not one Nigerian has been trained to release it on a weekly check. Where is the transfer of technology?
The World Bank and statistics put it that 60 per cent of 170 million Nigerians are below 27 years, many of them looking for jobs. The aviation business should be providing many of them jobs, but it can't. This is the time for Nigeria to come to reality and get aviation to contribute. We have the potentials but what is our problem? Is it the regulator? Is it the airline? If you put your things right, investment would come. Government does not need to spend one dollar to get things running. With the devaluation and oil price crises, Nigeria will need to focus critically and honestly on different areas. Aviation is a goldmine that can be tapped the same way oil was tapped.
Corruption in the aviation sector does not stand alone; it is part of the Nigerian system where people sign away their birthright and the wealth of our future generations for peanuts, wristwatches, free tickets, hotel accommodation and others at the expense of Nigerians.
Now, enough is enough. Oil is drying up and prices are crashing, so we need to look inward.
How does all these contribute to unemployment in the sector and the frequent collapse of airlines in the country?
No airline is collapsing now. It is just that it is a tough terrain worldwide. Nigeria is not alone on this at this period. Everybody is adjusting.
For unemployment, we need to look at our BASAs, at our regulations, at how we can transfer technology. It is a long-term project for Nigeria. If we had started a long time ago, by now the corrections would have been done.
This is why we are here to encourage the new government, which we believe will listen to us. We also believe in it. I personally believe in Buhari, I agree with him on his agenda, I love what he is doing. He needs to extend his war on corruption to aviation.
The sector has a notoriety of policy somersaults done by government. How does this affect it?
It is not government's fault really, because those somersaults would always be done for certain reasons. They aren't made policies per se because they aren't put in the Constitution and stamped.
What does the country require to attain the status of an aviation hub?
A hub is created like a bicycle wheel where there are spokes at the centre. Everybody flows into a hub and are distributed from there. Looking at Nigeria's position geographically, we are in the centre of Africa and are four and half hours from almost everywhere. The Nigerian population of 170m, and we are 60 per cent of the West African population of 310m. West Africa is roughly about 30 per cent of the whole Africa.
First, we need to build the environment for it. Fortunately, we enjoy a natural position that will aid that. Second, we have the population, which is the manpower, to be able to do it. Third, we have free petrol. So making Nigeria an aviation hub is not rocket science. The first car which was built almost 100 years ago used gasoline. Gasoline, petrol or aviation fuel is distilling of crude oil. In the 70s and 80s when I came back from school, Warri was refining and producing aviation fuel. In 2015, 35 years later, we have lost ground on where we were.
We also need to get our airports' amenities right. We need to be serious to say we want to be a hub. If Nigeria is a hub, you can imagine how much more passengers would be paying in tax, how much they would be spending on food, how much hotels would be earning and how much aeroplanes would be paying in landing charge.
Why do Nigerian airlines take their planes abroad for maintenance check but can't bring them back?
Aviation business in Nigeria can't be separated from Nigeria as a country. Nigerian aviation is part of the Nigerian problem. It is the same power supply issue, same corruption, same insincerity, same selfish interest, same nepotism. We need to start addressing the problems afflicting Nigeria itself. It will take us time to correct to get out of it.
But can Nigeria get out of this hardship at this moment? Yes. Singapore does not have oil, neither does Switzerland, yet the countries are doing very well. South Africa also does not have oil. But we have virtually everything: oil, geographical position, agriculture, etc, so there are many things we can do.
When planes go for C-check (maintenance) and do not come back, it is a direct reflection of what is happening in our environment. Today, to access foreign exchange is almost impossible. Today, people are signing BASAs instead of them to say, 'I don't have the competence to represent this country at this BASA agreement. The maintenance check problem is a sad story. In 1977, the Nigerian Airways did a D-check on a 737 Boeing and in 2001, they did a C-check on an airbus, a modern aircraft. Today, Nigeria can't do any check anymore. Today, there is no single hangar that can house and lock a 737 to do any maintenance.