Cost of air travel may rise as NCAA audits operators

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• ‘Regulator also needs auditing’
• ‘60 aircraft shrank to 28 in one year’

A fresh audit of airlines plying the nation’s domestic routes has begun. The audit, by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), which will reveal the true financial status of the local airlines, is to ensure that none of the seven operators cut corners and put lives at risk.

The regulator could also wield the big stick by grounding defaulting airlines or some aircraft thereby putting more pressure on the cost of local flights. Such a penalty on defaulting airlines will mean that the Nigerian airspace will shrink further, leaving fewer aircraft available to the nation’s teeming local passengers and pushing up prices for air tickets.

Poor road network has put pressure on road travels leading to huge man-hour and economic losses. A 500-kilometre trip on the Lagos-Abuja road could take as many as 12 hours or even a whole day whereas it takes less than four-and-half-hour drive to travel the same distance in South Africa. The impact of the difficulties encountered by road users has made airlines the lifeblood of Nigeria’s transport sector. Trying to reduce the number of airlines means higher prices and more threats to local tourism, businesses and the freight industry.

Some airline operators have said that the domestic carriers would need more than economic auditing from the regulatory body, given their operating environment.

There has been public concern over the health of domestic airlines, given reports on financial distress and huge indebtedness to banks and regulatory agencies.

Besides Aero Contractors that has “temporarily” shut down scheduled flights services, others like Arik Air, Med-View, First Nation, Air Peace, Dana, Overland and Azman have been complaining of difficulty in satisfying obligations in the area of fuel, maintenance and charges, amidst low patronage due to recession.

The Guardian learnt that the entire seven operating domestic airlines currently run on 40 aircraft, of which only 28 are currently flying. The sector had about 60 functional commercial aircraft in December 2015.

Confirming the audit, the Director-General of the NCAA, Captain Muhtar Usman said the authority was strongly monitoring operators’ activities and that travellers had no reason to fear any mishap.

Usman said the NCAA sanctioned some airlines and pilots recently, when they strayed from the rules and regulations, adding that it would not be any different this time, despite efforts to support the airlines to remain in business.

“One of the major components of the regulatory agency is surveillance and we have intensified that, especially since this recession started, to ensure that all operators are abiding by the provisions of safety and security regulations. And in the areas of enforcement and compliance, we have done a lot,” he said.

“There are those that thought they would slip under our radar and do things that they should not do. We were able to sanction a number of operators and individuals who had licences and were trying to operate in ways contrary to the privileges given to them in their licences.

“These include the pilots we caught and suspended from operating flights as a result of testing positive to illicit substances, and some flying without necessary documentations and other infractions,” he said.

Usman noted that contrary to reports, NCAA has been carrying out both local and international trainings which are the bedrock of civil aviation authority anywhere in the world.

A member of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), who would not want his name mentioned, however, said that the NCAA itself needed to be audited to test its level of effectiveness and efficiency in ensuring growth and safety in the sector.

He said the issues in the aviation were more deep-seated than “finding faults” in domestic airlines.

“Today, as we speak, there is no fuel to power the aircraft, we cannot freely access forex to meet obligations and buy spare parts. We are moving from one industry dispute to the other. How have the regulators themselves helped to address this problem? That is why I said that NCAA itself should be audited.”

The Chairman, Governing Council of the Nigerian Aviation Safety Initiative (NASI), Capt. Dung Rwang Pam, said that the NCAA had the onerous responsibility to ensure that airlines run strictly by the international rules.

According to him, the NCAA has a mandate to first ensure that Nigerians have safety, efficient, comfortable and sustainable air transport system. “Part 9, Section 30, Sub-section 4B and C of the 2006 Civil Aviation Act mandates them to carry out the evaluation and analysis of operations of all Nigerian registered airlines in order to determine their financial capability to carry out safe operations.

“It is a huge responsibility and multifaceted. With the autonomy that they have, they are not supposed to suffer any form of political interference as long as they go according to the mandate. If they don’t, they have failed,” he said.



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