Billions lost to helicopter ban on Kaduna-Abuja route
Foreign partners to withdraw choppers as sub-sector collapses
The Federal Government’s ban on helicopter services on the Kaduna-Abuja route yesterday threw the aviation sector into disarray as investors and operators began to count losses.
The losses, running into billions as at yesterday, were due to several helicopters idling away in Lagos and Abuja while air operators failed in their commitments to passengers that had booked on both shuttle and charter services.
The Guardian learnt that foreign investors and their local partners who have invested millions of dollars and deployed for the botched services are currently considering immediate withdrawal of their helicopters from Nigeria.
According to industry sources, the development may precipitate the end of quality investment in helicopter services and contributions of the aviation sector to the troubled economy at large. As long as the ban stays while the closure of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA) lasts, the government may have made access to the seat of government (Abuja) by the rest of the world much more difficult.
Helicopter service operators in the country had expected and prepared for a boom time on account of the temporary closure of the NAIA for its runway’s repair.
The operators had deployed both charter and shuttle service helicopters for different categories of people on various routes (Lagos, Kaduna, Port Harcourt, Minna) inwards Abuja.
The Guardian last week reported that the costs of the shuttle services ranged from N100,000 to N200,000 per head, depending on the boarding location and time of booking.
A direct helicopter shuttle service from Lagos to Abuja went for between N150,000 to N200,000 per head. A similar flight on Kaduna-Abuja or Minna-Abuja route cost between N50,000 and N100,000.
The market was living up to investors’ expectations when the Federal Government issued a memo, imposing the ban on chopper services in and around Abuja airport.
Sources yesterday confirmed that none of the operators has been able to carry out scheduled services since Friday, when President Muhammadu Buhari flew in from London after his medical holiday.
The chief executive officer of one of the airlines was moved to tears when he said: “This is not what we planned for at all. They have just ruined business for all of us. Helicopters worth $20 million are just sitting down doing nothing, while operators continue to incur the cost of parking, crew and maintenance.
“What kind of country is this? And what manner of leaders are we having? If you don’t call this a devilish act, then I don’t know what else to call it.”
It was learnt that the airline of our informant has been cancelling scheduled flights, both shuttle and chartered, and refunding money to customers who paid up front.
Another operator described the ban as overzealousness on the part of government “that is just bent on scaring investors away while mouthing their invitation to Nigeria.”
The Guardian learnt that operators have been in talks with the Federal Government to reverse the order, but with little response yet from the authorities.
The National Security Adviser (NSA), Babagana Munguno, on Sunday banned chopper services in and around Abuja citing security concerns.
The NSA gave a directive banning helicopter shuttle services on the Abuja- Kaduna route through a memo in which he said, “In view of the closure of the airport, air travelers will be required to travel by road/train to Abuja from Kaduna International Airport. This will undoubtedly cause constraints on the movement of some passengers who will aim to travel using other means, notably the use of commercial ferry helicopters.
“Please be reminded that the airspace over the Federal Capital Territory Abuja is controlled and only security flights or those with the requisite security clearance from the presidency are granted overhead clearance for obvious security reasons.
“Consequently, you are to note and ensure that no charter or commercial helicopter ferry flights are allowed to fly within Abuja airspace.”
The Chairman of the Aviation Round Table (ART), the think-tank group of the aviation industry in Nigeria, Gbanga Olowo, said the ban was another classic case of how government’s policy flip-flops and harsh environment have consistently ruined air travel business in Nigeria.
According to Olowo, the poor state of the industry is 70 per cent fault of the government and the remaining, that of the operators.