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Airlines: Bracing the odds to support Nigerian project

The outbreak of COVID-19 and the attendant global lockdown incontrovertibly exposed the weaknesses of many countries as it was a period when every nation was…

The outbreak of COVID-19 and the attendant global lockdown incontrovertibly exposed the weaknesses of many countries as it was a period when every nation was on its own.

Aviation played a critical role in helping nations wriggle out of the emergencies in terms of movement of medical supplies, especially Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which were urgently needed to control the spread of the virus.

Nigerian airlines, luckily, were able to rise to the occasion. Despite not being able to operate during the period because of the lockdown, majority of them were in the forefront of helping to distribute medical supplies across the country, carrying out evacuation and so on.

Leading in these interventions was Air Peace, Nigeria’s biggest carrier. Dana Air, Aero Contractors and Azman Air also proved their “Nigerianness” in helping the nation.

For the first time, there was a carrier with the Nigerian flag going to countries people would have thought were meant for the big players in the African aviation industry. From India, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Turkey, Israel, Bangladesh, London to several other African countries, Air Peace evacuated Nigerians, including foreign nationals, who were stranded due to the lockdown to and from various parts of the world.

In its six years of its existence, the airline has made Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) an integral part of its operation through initiatives aimed at giving back to the people and sustaining the Nigerian project.

From the evacuation of Nigerians in South Africa during the xenophobic attacks, sponsorship of the national football teams, among others, to the COVID-19 evacuations, analysts believe the airline and its Chairman, Mr Allen Onyema, have been able to amplify CSR, prodding others to emulate.

The evacuation of Nigerians from South Africa remains a historical epoch in the annals of Nigeria. There were cries of joy and excitement when over 300 Nigerians were evacuated from South Africa in 2019.

The most recent intervention by the airline was the sponsorship of the national teams through bonuses and packages for victories. According to the NFF President, Amaju Pinnick, the partnership with Air Peace to the tune of N1.2bn over the next four years (in tranches of N300m) moved the NFF to more than 70 per cent as a self-sustaining football national organisation.

Mr Pinnick said, “We are happy because peace in Air Peace epitomises unity, oneness, humanity, nationalism and patriotism.

“Air Peace is not only 100 per cent about safety; it is an organisation with a human heart. We have noticed their rise meteorically and we are convinced that this coming together is ordained by God Almighty.”

Speaking on why he partnered with NFF, Mr Onyema said it was done not to seek any publicity but as his own contribution to national unity and reconciliation as the national teams united everybody irrespective of tribe, religion or ethnicity.

Mr Onyema who spoke when he was conferred with “Philanthropist of the Year” by The Sun Newspapers, said, “When I did what I did with the NFF, the other time bringing N300m for the Nigerian national teams, I didn’t do so because I wanted to indulge in publicity; I did it to bring hope to this country, to restore hope to this country. I did it because I know it is a contribution towards restoring hope.”

Before establishing Air Peace, Mr Onyema was involved in dialoguing with the Niger Delta militants which prompted the amnesty granted them by the administration of President Umaru Yar’Adua.

His engagement with the Niger Delta militants and their training culminated in the stabilisation of oil production which daily output had slumped to an all-time low of 700 barrels from two million barrels per day. He was able to do this through his Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria (FEHN).

According to him, the airline with over 3,000 workers at the moment, and creating thousands of indirect jobs, is fulfilling its purpose of job creation and reducing youth restiveness in the country.

Meanwhile, according to experts, Nigerian airlines that have not been much feasible with CSR can only do more with more government support. However, amid the skyrocketing foreign exchange (forex) which has tripled the cost of operations in recent times, this is not the best of times for Nigerian carriers. Struggling to survive the debilitating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic globally, many of their aircraft have been stranded abroad for months due to the scarcity of forex to retrieve the planes. This, it was learned, was responsible for the recent incidents of delay which passengers have been experiencing. Even Air Peace, with over 30 aircraft in its fleet, has many of its aircraft undergoing maintenance.

While the present government has done a lot for the airlines in terms of waiver on aircraft purchase – which Air Peace confirmed has saved it billions of naira in the acquisition of its brand new E192-E2 aircraft – the removal of Value Added Tax (VAT) on air tickets and the N4bn bailout, experts say the major constraint to smooth operations by the airlines today is the scarcity of forex.

Olumide Ohunayo, an analyst, said there was no doubt that the government needed to open a special forex window for airline operators to access as “this is the only way to enable them to sustain their operations.”

Another stakeholder and CEO of Butake Resources Limited, an aviation handling firm, Alhaji Bello Shehu, said with more incentives for airlines, they would be encouraged to do more for the country in terms of CSR.

Alhaji Shehu said, “The concept of CSR rests on the incentives the government extends to that sector. Such a gesture should be encouraged. You can look at areas where you can make their operations cost-efficient as stability in their operations is key.

“There are other areas that deserve priority. They should relax some of the stringent measures the banks and financial institutions are imposing on aviation.

“Government should declare aviation a priority. While there are other areas of endeavour, the government should give more attention to the airlines. The charges also are so astronomical.”

Engr Benedict Adeyileka, a former Director General (DG) of NCAA, in a chat with our correspondent, said with more government support for local carriers, the best CSR they would do is in the provision of jobs for the teeming Nigerian people which would translate into addressing the widespread poverty in the land.

Engr Adeyileka said, “When you look at the economy…How many people you are going to employ, and you know when you employ one person, you are employing a whole family. The majority of people they employ are probably the breadwinners in their families. This is what Air Peace has done in the last six years.”