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Focus must be safety of lives, says Onyejeocha

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Chairman House Committee on Aviation, Mrs. Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, in an interview with journalists in Abuja, said the aviation sector is redirecting its policy to meet best global practices but insists that our airports and airspace must be safe for Nigerians, among sundry issues.  Jamila Nuhu Musa was there.  

As chairman House Committee on Aviation, are you worried about the unfair treatment of Nigerians by foreign carriers? 
To be honest with you, I am a Nigerian and have been travelling abroad before I became Chairman of House Committee on Aviation and I can tell you that British Airways (BA) is the worst for this. It will bring in old aircrafts and charge very exorbitant fares.  I am also aware that the Minister for Aviation took them on, on this and we equally made an observation about the unfair treatment meted on Nigerians. Similarly, the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr. Harold Demuren, also raised the issue of overcharging with the British Airways and came up with a position on how much they have overcharged Nigerians.
What position was reached?
I think the documents revealed that both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic overcharged Nigerian passengers to the tune of $235 million which they needed to pay back. They have started paying such monies back in other countries, even in the USA, so why won't they pay back to Nigerian passengers, the overcharged fares? The matter is in court but Honourable Na'Allah, Kanayo Graham and Barr. Ojuckwa are to look into the issues raised by the British Airways and I know justice would be done on the matter. We believe that with time the aircraft will be phased out because when you fly from Nigeria to London, enroute another country like USA, you will see brand new aircraft as if you were an inferior passenger or that you paid less fare. But the truth is that Nigerians pay more. What the British Airways charge from Ghana to London is cheaper than what Nigerians pay from Lagos to London. The charges and rates must be reviewed honestly; the Nigerian passenger must be treated with respect.
Why are airports in the country not befitting of Nigeria's status as giant of Africa?
Lots of changes are being put in place, implemented or facilitated in the Aviation sector. As you all know, the aviation industry or sector is such that when you develop it consciously, it can be a huge revenue earner for the country. Many countries are reaping from the investments in the aviation industry and Nigeria can key in too. For me, as the Chairman House Committee on Aviation, and in collaboration with the Ministry, we have this vision that we need to impact positively so as to uplift the industry from its present position. We want to bring in first class facilities to all the airports. If you have been travelling recently, you may have noticed the changes. The airports are being redirected to international standards. Fee paying passengers need a measure of comfort when they are passing through our airports.
Given our maintenance culture how do you intend to ensure international standards?
I  agree with you that the biggest problem in this country is lack of maintenance policy. We do not have a culture of maintaining what we have. You must maintain your facilities if you really want them to perform at optimal level. Most of the facilities in our airports were put in place when those airports were built. But there was no conscious effort to change it or remodel to suit the trend. I think that the N38Bn earmarked by the Ministry might be enough to finish all the jobs, but it is good to start from somewhere and take it from there. I do not think we have issues with the companies that are doing the jobs. They are reputable and competent because if you pay peanuts, you will not get good results. Let's face the reality; the aviation industry is not a place where you experiment because human lives are involved. You must meet the world standard and the international bodies will sanction and slam you when you deviate from set standards. In the budget that was passed for 2011, and even now, provision was made for such. In Lagos for instance, the air conditioners were installed at the same time with the airport. During the tenure of Kema Chikwe, she tried to work on them but they have parked up as we speak. The airport authorities tried refurbishing it, but we disagreed and asked that it should be replaced. Air conditioners have a life span, we can afford to change them as and when due. You cannot refurbish air conditioners. Ordinarily before now, one would have thought that they should have been changed, but in Nigeria, nobody takes care of government property. For Lagos and other airports, I can assure you that the Ministry and FAAN have promised that Nigerians and travelers will soon start enjoying first class facilities before April.
Why are there only few aircraft using the Abuja Airport?
I think the Minister is working with the authorities of Emirates for them to start their Abuja operation and I am sure before next summer, something positive is going to come out of it. But you should also note that people from the South-south and South-east also need the Emirate. So there is hope that the Emirate will fly Abuja and Enugu. Abuja is sure for now, but for Enugu airport, there must be facilities in place to take such big aircraft. Even Qatar Airways can also venture into Abuja. And for the Owerri Airport, which serves most of the South-east states including Rivers State, and seems to be suffering so much neglect in the hands of the Aviation authorities, I can say things are changing. As I speak with you now, NAMA is about completing the AKL, that is the lighting facilities so that it can take evening and night flights. They should be going to Enugu by now. But remember, the argument has always been that Owerri Airport is a cargo handling airport. But I have told them that the old Imo State suffered to build that airport before the Federal government took it over. Over the years, it has handled commercial flights and should not be neglected.
What is your opinion on double taxation by the airlines?
To be candid with you, Nigerians do not pay tax, so who is overtaxing who?  If we have genuine concern over the arbitrary taxation and the issue of concession, who told you we can't investigate and come up with findings and motions that would be beneficial to every Nigerian? We, Nigerians do not plan our travels. If you plan well ahead, you can always get things cheaper. Even our local airlines like Aero, Dana and Arik have this system, which, when you buy your tickect on time, it is usually halved. But if you are travelling same day, it is usually very expensive. Nigerians need to change their travel orientation except on emergencies. Let us plan ahead and avoid the high cost as compared to other countries.
How can training of personnel impact positively on the aviation industry?
Foreign airlines now do less paper work, but Nigeria is yet to meet that standard because everybody wants to go into every business without conducting proper research and background check. You cannot do without adequate training and retraining of your man power in any area of endeavour.
Only last year, FAAN recorded well over 12 million passengers and 234,235 aircraft movement in 2011, with 3,257,738 on domestic flight and 2237,991, on the International route. It becomes imperative that there must be training to meet up with the increased number of aircraft and passenger movement.  We are also aware that the most pressing need now is security at our airports. The world over, the main gateway into the country is the airport and so providing adequate security is a task that must be handled with seriousness. You must have facilities on ground and need not neglect the training aspect of it. To be honest, without adequate training you cannot talk about handling equipment.
But despite the huge budget for training over the years, expatriates are taking over crucial technical areas of the industry. Why is this so?
I am aware that certain aspects of our aviation industry have been taken over by expertise. I am equally aware that Nigerians worth their salt have been engaged in highly sensitive but lucrative jobs abroad. Recently, the house got the information that the oil industry had more foreigners than indigenous staff who, sometimes are better qualified but relegated to the background. We are investigating the allegation. The same will surely happen in the aviation sector. The Minister of Aviation is planning to open up employment opportunities for qualified Nigerians and I believe she will live up to the billing. In the budget for 2012, funds have been earmarked for training. In as much as we have local manpower; we equally need foreign hands in the industry because aviation needs a lot of collaboration to survive. Each item you buy has a foreign component and that is the way it has been structured. I also understand that Nigeria has over $70 million in the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA); the funds must be accessed and applied to the relevant areas that need it but first things first, facilities, then training. Before, a lot of things were not done properly. Now you do not just train manpower without facilities. You must have it and then train.
What are your worries about security as regards the aviation industry?
The issue of security is paramount even as it is worrisome. Our airports must be secured and our airspace too. For me, the challenge in aviation is safety to lives and then others.  We are collaborating with the Minister. You should equally know that each challenge a country has, comes with its attendant problems. For now the aviation Ministry must focus on the safety of lives and property within its jurisdiction in collaboration with other security agencies. In this aspect I think they are equally trying. The legacy I want to bequeath at the end of my tenure is to see that the sector contributes a lot of revenue to the economy, and that many Nigerians would be able to feed from the sector and equally contribute to the growth of the economy. It should not be oil alone.

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