Opinion: Challenges Before Chidoka By Adewale KupoluyiArticles/Opinion, Latest News Friday, July 25th, 2014
Perhaps, if there is any sector of the Nigerian economy that requires urgent attention, the aviation industry should top the list even though there is hardly any facet of our national life that is not in comatose and critically distressed. This is the burden the new helmsman in the Aviation Ministry should be ready to bear. The former Corps Marshal of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), Mr. Osita Chidoka, the new minister could offer Nigerians a good opportunity to save its aviation industry, if he decides to entrench his name in the sands of time. Chidoka, though may not have had much experience in the industry would indeed have to learn fast and take firm decisions that would bail out the sinking sector.
It is sad that despite the enormous available opportunities, the industry’s contribution to the Gross Domestic Product is still very small and insignificant. Hence, there are a number of issues that should be addressed in the frantic bid to revamp this sector without further delay. While all the challenges facing the aviation sector cannot be discussed in this piece, we should nonetheless realise that it is high time we overhauled this diseased area of our national life, to cut down on crashes and avoidable deaths that have been the lot of our airspace. It has been one disaster after the other. To restore the confidence of air travellers, the government should wholistically enforce the existing regulations and adopt stricter global standards. Efforts should be made to ensure the welfare of the pilots, engineers and crew in the industry, is enhanced. Also, an arrangement whereby the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) monopolises over 20 airport management in the country is not only wrong but counterproductive. For now, our airports lack basic and functional facilities, which are taken for granted by even smaller nations. Aviation regulation is still highly unregulated and corrupt. Unlike the former Minister, Ms. Stella Oduah, who was accused of usurping the powers of the agencies under her ministry, the new helmsman should toe a different path by reversing the tide by ensuring that they are truly independent and be allowed to focus on their statutory duties. He should work assiduously to ensure that substantive heads are appointed without further delay.
There is need to remove partisan politics from pure technical and strategic matters that touch on the safety of the people. The aviation industry under Chidoka should behave more maturely and responsibly by separating politicking from the operations of our airspace. It will be difficult to forget many of such ugly cases. For example, the messy encounter in which the Bombardier Global Express aircraft that was billed to convey the Governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi, from the Akure Airport from a trip to Ekiti State, but was unceremoniously stopped by the NCAA without any justifiable reason. This unethical practice should not be allowed to repeat itself in any part of the country. These incidents – that involved other top government officials, including the Edo State Governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole – not only generate avoidable controversies between the states and Federal Government, they cast a bad image on our aviation industry.
There is an urgent need for infrastructural upgrade. Paramount among infrastructure deficit is the dearth of functional search and rescue equipment. Among other facility problems is the current state of navigational lightnings at the many unutilised airports inspite of their high maintenance costs been gulped while ministry’s accumulated indebtedness of N153 billion is worrisome. Aside this, many airports still lack perimeter fencing. The fallout of this deficiency and porous nature of our airports once caused Air France A-330 aircraft to run into a herd of cattle in Port Harcourt. Similarly, a mentally-deranged man was found sleeping in one of the aircrafts while boy Daniel Oikhena too cleverly hid himself in the wheel of an Arik Air plane’s dangerous flight from Benin to Lagos. Apart from the archaic, embarrassing and cumbersome security checks that are still being deployed in our airports, the cooling systems are completely broken down. Local flights are rescheduled and cancelled anyhow. It is in our country that airport officials would resort to cutting of jerry cans to trap water leaking from the roof of the remodeled terminals where rain-dredged passengers themselves scampered through pools of water and bumped against each other during torrential rains. It is a common feature to see touts move freely without any official control whatsoever.
Another area requiring serious attention is the need to put a stop to very old planes from flying our airspace. It is incontestable that many planes operating in Nigeria are not less than 25 years old and ordinarily should not be allowed to fly again. This crisis is not unconnected with the proliferation of small airlines that rely on refurbished, old and secondhand aircraft, many of which do not meet current international safety standards. Even though it has been argued that age does not really matter, it is commonsensical that the cost of maintaining a new aircraft will surely be less than that of overhauling old ones. Again, the proliferation of private jets is another source of concern. It is estimated that private aircrafts have grown exponentially from about 20 in year 2000 to close to 200 now, which are either leased or operated by Nigerians. To hide the identities of owners, such aircrafts are registered in other jurisdictions. This largely account for why a sizeable number of private jets in the country carry foreign registration. Hence, for security reasons and to ensure that only authorised business entities or persons operate private aircrafts, real owners of private jets should be encouraged to come forward.
Another policy worth reviewing is the revised National Civil Aviation Policy (NCAP) 2013. This policy had barred private jet owners from flying friends and associates on their aircrafts, while companies with private jets are permitted to carry only employees or members of the boards of directors. Under this discriminatory provision, passengers on board will be subjected to an Air Traffic Control (ATC) clearance while operators will be made to declare the identities of all passengers on non-revenue charter. Then, we would need to ask the aviation authorities these questions: What does a ‘family member’ mean? At what point does one distinguish between a ‘family member’ and a ‘friend?’ And who determines what? This is nothing but a confusing policy that should be discarded. The problems of the industry are more or less structural and managerial in which only a thorough overhauling and robust public-private partnership initiatives could remedy. In many progressive nations of the world, airports are either concessioned or privatised outright to experienced and private operators. Therefore, what the industry needs desperately is a generous liberalisation of the regulatory agencies to make them more efficient, professional and functional, akin to the optimism given by the United States Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, when he stated that “Nigeria has a robust aviation reform agenda; one of the best and promising in the world”.
Finally, Chidoka should revisit the reports of past aircrashes that have gathered dust over the years. I’m sure there are lessons that could be learnt from such experiences that had been tapped from committed and experienced operators. He should not be afraid to do the right thing. That is what good leadership demands. However, he should beware of sycophants that would mill him just like other leaders. Many people in positions of authority fail because of the overwhelming influence of sycophants. They come in various shades, shapes and sizes. It is only hoped that Chidoka would chart the right course that will truly make the desired change in our aviation sector.
Kupoluyi writes from the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, vide, email@example.com, Twitter, @AdewaleKupoluyi
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