The immediate past Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, unveiled an aircraft supposedly belonging to Nigeria Air amidst pomp last Friday, but a week after, the national carrier is yet to fly. Daily Trust on Sunday reports that tongues are wagging over what has become of the aircraft on display.
Where is Nigeria Air? This is a question in the lips of many Nigerians. Some have asked for the website of the new airline for flight bookings which is presently non-existent. But a check on the Ethiopian Airlines’ aircraft ET-APL which was unveiled on Friday last week showed the aircraft has returned to Ethiopian Airlines’ service.
On Thursday June 1st 2023 when our correspondent checked, the aircraft operated Addis-Ababa-Mogadishu and Mogadishu-Addis-Ababa flight. As the flight radar showed, the aircraft – a Boeing 737-860 – actually returned to ET service on May 31st 2023; four days after the aircraft returned from Abuja. The aircraft must have been on ground for four days to undergo the necessary repainting and checks prior to returning it to service after the Friday’s reception which was also welcome with a ceremonial water salute by officials of the Aerodrome Rescue and Fire-fighting Service unit of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).
The unveiling was the last major engagement carried out by the former minister before his exit and it was to him a fulfilment and a delivery of the core component of Muhammadu Buhari’s Aviation roadmap.
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Sirika had promised two days before the unveiling that the Nigeria Airplane would arrive on Friday when criticisms were high about his inability to deliver on the national carrier.
And like he promised, the aircraft arrived amidst fanfare at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.
But did Nigeria Air actually launch?
Shortly after the minister’s statement that the airplane would arrive on Friday, the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) raised an alarm over alleged move by the minister to arm-twist the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to waiver key regulatory requirements and grant AOC to Nigeria Air.
The Chief Executive Officer of Aero Contractors, Capt. Ado Sanusi, while speaking on Channels TV, said it was one thing to have an aircraft on ground and another for the aircraft to fly.
He said as far as he was concerned, based on the regulatory provisions relating to the start of airline operation, it was impossible for the national carrier to start flight operation.
According to him, it is practically impossible for the airline to start commercial passenger operation in two days time given the rigorous process involved which he believes would not be waived by the regulatory authority, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) as the whole world is watching.
“There’s a very important and vital component of getting an AOC which is the demonstration flights. Of course, there are waivers that the Director General of the NCAA has the power to give, but the demonstration flights are critical to safe operations and I do not think he would give that waiver.
“So, it is practically impossible for the airline to take off in the next two days. It is not possible because they have to do the demonstration flights, the five phases have to be completed, the international community is looking at us to see actually whether we are following what the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) stipulated in their recommended practices and laid down procedures for commercial carriage of passengers internationally.”
Our correspondent reports that the process of acquiring an AOC involves five rigorous stages. The phases include pre-application. At this stage, the intending carrier is expected to make initial enquiry or request about NCAA’s certification; obtaining of Civil Aviation Regulation (CAR) and advisory; provision of forms to prospective applicants’ NCAA receives.
The phase two includes document compliance. At this stage, an intending carrier is expected to show evidence of financial capacity to undertake the business, proposed commensurate Insurance Policy and/or insurance arrangement being put in place and duly completed Personal History Statement (PHS) forms and two passport photographs in respect of each of the directors of the company.
At this stage, the NCAA is expected to seek security clearance from the Presidency on behalf of the applicant. However, the phase three of the exercise is the Demonstration Phase, while the fourth and the firth phase include inspection and issuance of certificate.
Also, a start-up airline, according to regulations, is expected to start with a minimum of two aircraft for it to be granted an AOC.
But in the case of Nigeria Air, the NCAA denied the airline further steps in the process of its AOC for failure to adhere to the step-by-step process.
The failure to follow the process was made known to the Nigeria Air Managing Director in a letter signed by Capt. O.O Lawani for the Director General Civil Aviation, DGCA.
The letter tagged, “Re: Request to Proceed to Phase Two of AOC Certification” with reference number NCAA/DOLTS//GEEN/Vol. III/16123 was dated June 2, 2023.
The letter read, “The authority is in receipt of your letter dated 25th May 2023 on the above matter.”
“Quite contrary to our earlier letter of 16th May 2023 which enumerated the documents to be submitted with Formal Application Form OPS 002, your letter of request to proceed to phase two has no inclusion of a Formal Application Form, the necessary documents referenced in the Formal Application Form. Hence, the certification process cannot progress to Phase Two without these required documents,” the letter read in part.
With the letter, it is clear that the airline has barely proceeded from stage one of the AOC process and therefore cannot progress to the next stage.
When the DG of the NCAA, Capt. Musa Nuhu, was asked about the airline sometime last year, he disclosed that the carrier was undergoing security clearance.
He said, “The only thing I can tell you is that the promoters of that airline have applied and their AOC is ongoing. I don’t have any assurance of when the licenses would be. You see, when you apply for AOC or any certification, some issues are not completely under the purview of the NCAA like seeking security clearance for the applicant, security agents do that.
“I don’t have control over security agencies to give such clearances. They have applied and it is ongoing, we are waiting for security clearance.”
On April 1, 2022, the NCAA published a public notice to intimate the general public of the registration of the proposed Nigeria Air and on June 3, 2022, the airline was issued an Air Transport License (ATL) which is a precursor to the issuance of AOC.
Trouble however started when the minister unveiled the shareholding structure of Nigeria Air, showing that Ethiopian Airlines – the biggest airline in Africa – would have a controlling share of 49 percent. ET also demanded to appoint a Managing Director and some key management positions in the start-up carrier. But the AON representing domestic airlines took the Federal Government to court to challenge the shareholding structure which it argued was designed to give Nigeria Air an advantage over other domestic airlines. In addition, they feared it could be an avenue to open the domestic market to Ethiopian Airlines.
The case was still in court when the launch came up penultimate Friday which is currently generating ripples in the industry and raising more questions about the intention of the immediate past government on the national carrier.
Speaking with our correspondent, the Chief Executive Officer of TopBrass Airlines, Capt. Roland Iyayi, said the controversial launch of the airline had justified the fear of the airline operators who challenged the whole arrangement in court.
“It is very clear that the former minister had no clear intention of setting up a national carrier. What he was trying to do was to set up a private airline disguised as a national carrier because he was saying that the federal government would hold only five percent, then of course that cannot be a national carrier. And then all the questions we asked about institutional investors and all the people who supposedly own 46 percent were not answered. So, we actually have a lot of issues with that and that is why the AON decided to go to court to get clarifications. As it is now, we may have been proven right.”
AON later issued a statement hailing the NCAA for not succumbing to pressure to issue AOC for the airline. According to the AON, the aircraft that was used for the static display in Abuja on Friday was not the first flight of Nigeria Air into Abuja.
“This is because Nigeria Air has not commenced flight operations as required by law. Nigeria Air has not been issued with an Air Operators Certificate (AOC) by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), which is the legal authority for the issuance of such certificates and as such, cannot conduct flight operations. Further to that, the aircraft is an Ethiopian Airline property that, even during the static display in Abuja, operated with an Ethiopian registration number as ET-APL. A further check at Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) will show that the flight entered Nigeria as an ET flight.”
Prof. Obiora Okonkwo, AON spokesperson, said, “It is capable of causing Nigeria to be blacklisted by aviation safety agencies like the US FAA and the EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency).
“Further implications include that airlines of those countries will not come into Nigeria, and Nigerian airlines will not be allowed to operate into those countries. It also means that Nigeria will definitely fail the upcoming ICAO audit and, by way of further penalty, lose its FAA CAT-1 Certification. Nigerian airlines will also not be able to lease aircraft to boost their operations because no lessor will trust the safety certification process of the NCAA.”
Aviation experts say the return of the aircraft to Addis was an indication that no launching was done and are calling for enquiries about what transpired.
Principal Partner, Avaero Capital, Sindy Foster, said the launch on Friday “was more a theatrical performance than the launch or kick off of any airline.”
Our correspondent had reached out to the Head of Press and Public Affairs in the Ministry of Aviation, Mr. Odatayo Oluseyi, on the status of the aircraft without a response as of press time.
However, the House of Representatives through its Aviation Committee had summoned the Permanent Secretary in the ministry to a session which was to hold on Thursday June 1 but the session did not hold because it was learnt that the Permanent Secretary wrote back to the House of Representatives that it needed more time to gather all the information being requested. The meeting was rescheduled for next Monday, the same week the 9th Assembly would come to an end and a new one inaugurated.
Will the session unravel the mystery behind the launch? Why was the aircraft returned to ET? Has the ET backed out as the core investor/technical partner? These and many more questions are what either the National Assembly or the new government would unravel. At the moment, the national carrier is still in limbo!