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Air passengers must have value for their money – Aviation Minister

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On her appointment as the Minister of Aviation in June 2011, Princess Stella Oduah, promised to fully implement government’s transformation agenda in the nation’s aviation industry. As the year 2011 rolled to an end, one message, authorities in the Nigeria aviation industry have sent out is that, apart from barking, they can also bite as the nation’s airports are presently being upgraded to modern standard. In this interview with Peoples Daily’s team of Editors, the Minister promises good news to stakeholders and the Nigerian travelling public. Excerpts:

Since you assumed duties as Minister of Aviation, what are the challenges you have had to contend with especially while trying to revamp the sector?

I think the correct word to describe the challenges is; legion, starting from policy, infrastructures that were not functional and platforms that really stagnate the growth of the industry as it is. But the saddest part of it is the human resources, the lack of training etc. It was a sad environment. I remember going to the toilets in one of the airports and seeing rats and cockroaches, everywhere.  You say to yourself, as a passenger, why I should pay this much to be stuck in such a place talk-less of travelling.

The airlines were on the verge of collapsing; I don’t how best to put it but I will say the industry that we met was a very sorry sight, but thank God, we came and developed a master plan to address all the issues and we are still addressing them.

Essentially, our aim is to ensure we have fundamental changes in aviation to make it self-sustaining, profitable and very well commercialized because aviation is  a very commercial enterprise apart from the fact that it is a gateway to every nation.

Our domestic airlines have this Nigerian mentality, whereby some airlines alter their schedule and you see a 5 o’clock flight does not take-off till 10pm, or in some cases abruptly cancels flights. This affects passengers, who have appointments to keep. How are you dealing with this?

Let’s define what the problems are; basically, the problem of an average local airline is that of management and so, you have a wrong business platform, but then the priority is for them to make profit. Now, if you have that in mind, no airline that wants to run a profitable business would want to make their passengers unhappy, so, if you have that mindset, then it will be easier for you to understand their predicament.

First of all, you have a business that is long term, highly capital-intensive but is being run with a short term loan that is also charged with double digit interest, it will be a miracle for the business to survive. So, the platform itself is already a bomb blast waiting to explode. We have recommended in our master plan that three things are needed to be done; one, the airline operators must have access to long-term facility with single-digit interest rate but most importantly, a professional management team to manage the business, because even if you have all the money in the world, if it is not properly and professionally managed, the business will collapse. It is when that is done, the enhancement of the human resources now come in.

Then the re-organisation of the company itself; there are some aircraft owners that at the end of every day, they collect every cash the business generates for that day and the next day you see the accountant running for funds, not just to pay the staff but to service the aircraft itself. You see a situation whereby the goose that is supposed to lay the golden egg is being strangulated.

You also have investors in aircraft management that really do not have passion for it and one thing that drives business, apart from every other thing, is the passion. So, if you cannot put all these things together, it just cannot work.

Now, on the scheduling, the truth of the matter is that 90% of airline operators in Nigeria do not have sufficient aircrafts because they cannot afford it; they don’t have the financial wherewithal to do so, and the banks are not lending to them and so the question will be: where do we come in?

We come in ensuring that we regulate, ensuring that we have policy that will encourage investors to come in, and for us  to initiate the dialogue for financial institution to know that we have a business module that works and that can work for airline operators. Once we have a buy-in into that, the air operators and operation will start growing. It’s a global aviation; unfortunately we don’t have Nigerian arm of it. Its either we key in or we don’t. And we’ll soon embark on a road-show with the operators; as long as we are able to get a buy-in from financial institutions and potential investors on this model that we have; once we have a buy-in into that, the airline operators would start; by the way, the airline operation is very lucrative but the business module must be right.

Are you thinking of the possibility of proposing a life-line from the government; like you said, it is  obvious that at the moment the airline operators don’t have resources and given the short term loans that our banks offer,  cannot sustain such kind of business?

We are initiating dialogue with financial institutions like I said, but they are not Father Christmas, they won’t just give money for the sake of it. So, for the mere fact that you have an airline business, doesn’t mean you will get it and so, the prerequisite which is necessary has to be there. To pre-qualify, you must have X-Y-Z, for instance, the business must be sustainable; Don’t forget that we, as Nigerians, our ownership tendency is mind-boggling and so, you want to have Mr. King Nigeria Limited Airlines, forgetting that if the five of us or six of us pool our resources together, we will have a much bigger airline, as opposed to what I will have or you will have as a single entity. That is what is going to drive them.

Airport concessioning has become topical in the aviation industry amid allegations that the model and contractual terms were skewed in favour of government cronies with fears that one day the airports may be privatised and eventually taken over by these interests; what is the way to resolve this anomaly?

I understand such sentiments; I personally don’t believe in concessioning, for the single reason that airports should be a revenue generating venture.

Now, if you take it from that context, it means that if run commercially, efficiently and professionally we can generate sufficient money and by the way, the airport and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) are authorised by their Acts to borrow, that they have sufficient revenue have to offset that; an entity that generates revenue in the neighbourhood of  about seventy billion and requires much less than that to put the airport in use so that we can get the international standard, why do you need the concession? It doesn’t make sense.

However, we must improve on our management capacity, and we can even bring our professional management team to say, train our people in ten years; let them mirror the management team. But why should we privatise or concession our airports when they are revenue generating; there are very few businesses that are as good revenue generating venture as the airports. Look at Dubai or Emirates, look at Kenya or Ethiopia. We are not helping ourselves, just because we want to help our cronies as you put it, we do that, we are not helping ourselves. Nigerian people should benefit, our children and children to come should also benefit from the investment, because it’s a huge investment.

Manpower development is key to the growth and development of the aviation sector; has the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria, lived up to expectation in filling the yawning gap of ageing and inadequate manpower in the industry?

No, but it will, because we want to run it commercially; For instance. we are collaborating with other training institutions; and by the way, most of them are going to offer them for free. Can you imagine, if we can train two hundred and fifty in Nigeria, we will dominate Africa. It means that in the next twelve years, one out of three pilots in Africa will be a Nigerian pilot. Can you imagine the wealth that will be flown back to Nigeria, we have the human resources,  we just have to agree on what to do with them. Look at the Philippines, the amount of foreign inflow that comes into the country just because of labour, we can do far better than that. We are also changing NCAT to be commercial, to be the vehicle that will help us to accommodate youth restlessness, but most importantly, we are using NCAT as a vehicle to dominate Africa aviation.

But do you have, as part of your commercialisation plans, a framework whereby the middle-class can send their children to study?

We have changed the curriculum, we made it affordable. It  is a long curriculum whereby if you don’t have seven million or thereabout you cannot go into NCAT, you can’t get your certificate; but we brought the curriculum to the extent that it is far less than that and at each stage, if you are satisfied you can go out and work and also come back; the limit to how far you go is strictly your capacity and we are working on a skill whereby  when you come out and get a job and we train you ,you can now defer that payment to your employment, you don’t really have the physical funds to be able to do that; and we realized that also, we don’t have much awareness that people  can  go to NCAT to get their degrees or your certificates and you see people going all the way to Florida and Ghana when we are have one of the best aviation schools in the world.

There are concerns that touting at the nation’s airports is still going unchallenged, how soon will this monster be tackled?

Left for me I will lock all of them (touts) up overnight; unfortunately, because you are dealing with human beings you need to do it systematically, because some people come to the airport and say they are waiting for their passengers or their relations so,  what we are trying to do, as part of our master plan, is to try to create an enabling environment at our airports whereby people  can come and stay and wait not to become nuisance to travelers.

The airport re- modeling project recently embarked upon has drawn some flak from some players in the aviation sector amid observations that it appears bogus; what is the real situation?

I will say they are unfair and I also say that often; we have to clean up our airports because they are in a very bad shape. No country deserves that type of facility; they should have value for money. For a passenger to pay thirty thousand it is somebody’s monthly pay for God sake; they should have a comfortable environment, a safe environment and the utility should be functional and that’s what we want to do. Those that criticize us are wondering how we can be doing what we are doing with the little money we have; unlike before, that we will be asking for billions of naira for one effort. We are prudent, we have value for money and we believe Nigerians should have value for their money and that is why we are doing so much with very little.

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