‘Over-regulation, poor management shrink aviation sector’
Former Managing Director of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) and current Managing Director of Topbrass Aviation, Captain Roland Iyayi, in this interview with WOLE OYEBADE,x-rays the challenges bessetting the aviation industry. Excerpts:
As an operator, what is your perception of the aviation industry vis-à-vis the challenges of fuel scarcity, hike in fares, delayed flights among others?
To understand the problems one must first know how the industry operates. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) licenses any airline operator coming into the country. The NCAA being the regulator is also required to enforce government policies as regards aviation. But do we have the right calibre people in the NCAA?
NCAA is not manned by people that I believe have the right competencies. That is the reality, whether you want to accept it or not. Somebody cannot give what he doesn’t have. If you do not understand what you are supposed to do in a particular position, all you’d do is to grope in the dark.
How does that affect the industry?
The CAA in Nigeria (NCAA) has all but over-regulated the industry; that is all it has done. It has not addressed the fundamental issues in the industry. If you have a situation where individuals that are supposed to be incharge of the CAA do not understand their remit, then there is a problem.
The CAA has two functions, to regulate the industry for safety oversight and the development of the industry. But there is a fine line between your safety oversight functions and your development of the industry. They have to go hand in hand. Because when you have an industry that is not growing, before long it shrinks. You regulate yourself out of existence.
Perhaps, safety was given priority given the spate of air crashes in the past.
What we have had is focus on safety and rightly so for sometime because in 2005 we had these spate of air crashes and there were some concerns from the public who wanted to be sure whether the CAA is doing the right thing. At that time, it was also a problem because we had a corrupt system. People were getting paid to turn a blind eye. I’m not sure it is not happening today again.
The spates of accidents we have had for sometime were boiled down to deficiencies and if the CAA had acted in good time, they could have been averted. But unfortunately, it didn’t happen at that time because again, the focus was on the wrong things. The system was corrupted. We brought in Harold Demurin who did a good job for the sector, till he became a victim of politicisation of the office and was removed.
Since he was removed, the office became an all-comers’ affair, where different people were thrown into office with very little understanding of what the whole thing is about. Again, we’ve taken ourselves away from the realm of being top-notch regulatory authority to somewhere very close to the bottom.
But the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recently scored the industry high
An ICAO audit will only show you your lapses but there are different aspects of it. With the last ICAO audit we passed at over 60 per cent. When you take a critical look at what it is, the reason we got over 60 was because the legal framework, which is mere paper work, scored us about 90. But with the key functions that revolve around the technical issues, we scored low. When you now average out on different sections, we scored over 60 and everybody is shouting. We should be concerned because what it tells me is that the standard we had in 2010, 2012 is not the same today.
Is that why the industry is not growing?
If you don’t encourage sustainable growth there is absolutely no way the industry can grow. Sustainable growth has to do with checking the health and understanding the issues that your airlines have. It is only in Nigeria that we have multiplicity of taxation by the various agencies. And if this money is being used for the right things like infrastructure and right services, then one can say this is what they have done with the money. But the reality is, the money is being squandered.
A case in point is NAMA. When I was in NAMA in 2006/7, NAMA had a total budget of N6b per annum. In three years, two managements have squandered N6.9b. Now, I can tell you for a fact, because I’m an operator, that in the last four years, tariffs have been increased. The increase in those tariffs is what you see being stolen.
The problems of the aviation sector are multifaceted but fundamental is that we have embraced mediocrity. Not understanding the import of our action or inaction in the underlining problem.
Today, we have 26 airports in the country owned by the Federal government and of all, only three – Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt – accounting for 80.2 per cent of the total public travelling by air. And somebody in the regulatory authority cannot ask the question why this aberration.
Is it normal that you will have airports built and well equipped, yet there is no service?
Their usual answer is that Lagos is the commercial capital, Port Harcourt the oil and gas capital and Abuja is seat of government, but they are all wrong. That is hogwash. Are you saying that someone in Kebbi with an airport will not want to fly to Abuja rather than drive 10 hours? Or someone in Jalingo does not want to come into Abuja by air? Are you saying that people in Benue do not want to avoid all the road traffic problems and fly into Abuja? These are the issues.
The question is that do they understand why? If you understand the issues then you’d be able to proffer the right solutions. If the regulators are able to get it right, then every other thing will fall into place.
Do you have any optimism that the current government can get it right in the aviation sector?
We cannot give up on the system, but to keep hoping that someday, someone will grasp the fact that this thing can be done differently and really deal with it. We have a new government and we have to give them the opportunity. The reality is that we do not have the right people in the industry at this time.
Most people will not come out to say it as it is. I’m sorry I have to. I have invested in the industry and I have lost money due to incompetence of certain individuals. If you’d wait for an operator to lose $20m before you say “what is happening there?” Then, there is a problem? If an operator got rid of 128 staff and you have not asked why, then there is a problem.
To show that the industry has been over regulated, I’ll give a classic example. To fly an airplane in Nigerian airspace you need a radio license. A radio license is not issued by the NCAA but by the Ministry of Communications.
There is an ongoing debate between the ministry of communications and the NCAA on who should issue the license and all of these boil down to money. Because of the tough war going on, as an operator you pay for the radio license. The retinue of document you have to bring is humongous, yet you still have to take the paper work to the ministry. You can do that for the entire year without being able to get the license. You pay and get a receipt to show the NCAA that you have paid to allow you to fly.
In a situation where the ministry didn’t complete the process like we have experienced last year, and we want to pay for this year, they refused to accept our payment and the NCAA decided in its wisdom to ground two fully serviceable aircrafts which are today not flying. Each airplane cost me about $6m.
It is a recurrent issue that every airline faces every year. Why can’t this be resolved? Airlines are losing money simply because of the action or inaction of the regulatory body. These are issues that the regulatory body would have taken up and get it escalated to the higher authority.
When you save airlines some money you give them a new life. It is not rocket science. All that is required is intervention at the right quarters. But if people do not know that these are things that come under their purview, then how do you help us?