AVIATIONLINE: How can Nigeria derive maximum benefit from its aviation industry?

AVM OKANLAWON: A quick snapshot back in time, precisely in the 60s and 70s reveals that Nigeria was at par or better than some Asian Tigers’ countries not just in aviation, but in development generally. Nigeria Airways was first among equals in Africa, the fleet and pilots were well respected in the industry. The decline in the industry started in the 80s and has continued till date. What went wrong? There are many factors: chiefly the collapse could be attributed to economic downturn, government interference, mismanagement and corruption. Can the industry become a major revenue earner for the country? What can be done to reverse the industry’s fortune? First, we must acknowledge and appreciate the tenacity of the private entrepreneurs who have, in spite of the many odds stacked against them, managed to sustain the industry to preclude total collapse. We must, however, accept the fact that the industry is very sick. As earlier mentioned, government has contributed in no small measure to the decline. One example is the role of the ministry of aviation which government created to boost the development in the sector, but became instead the retrogressive constant in the downward slide of the industry. The impetuous developments embarked upon by the ever-changing ministers were not based on any master plan but on the fancy of the present occupant of the office who were in all cases non -professionals. Government must therefore take the lead in the re-growth of the industry and nurse it back to maturity. Inter alia, the capital intensive nature of the industry also requires government intervention at this stage of our development. Secondly, aside of the government, the regulatory bodies have also not lived up to expectation. They have, because of corruption, compromised the ethics of the profession in many areas and in some cases contributed to many aircraft accidents and mishaps. Thirdly, the industry has also been polluted by the entrant of individuals who lack knowledge about the intricacies of the aviation business, especially the long term nature of investment returns.

The way forward is for government to take a holistic appraisal of every aspect of the industry: policy, infrastructure, aircraft, airlines, maintenance facilities, navigation facilities, airport associated businesses, taxation as well as passengers’ patronage and protection. A few suggestions on some specific things government can do to reposition Nigeria to derive maximum benefit from the aviation industry. One, scrap the aviation ministry! Restructure the ministry of transport to accommodate air, land, rail and water transportation systems. Two, reengineer and empower the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) into a statutory corporation free from government shackles. Return Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) to NCAA. Three, merge the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) with Skyway Aviation Handling Company (SAHCOL). Relocate the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT) to the Ministry of Education and give it the status of Federal University of Technology.

In addition, develop Lagos and Lekki airports to be Africa’s number one hub. Lagos, the city of commerce, is natural because of the comparative advantage of Nigeria’s location as the centre of Africa. It stands for what Heathrow represents in the world of aviation. Another touchy area is the proliferation of airline companies. Government must raise the stake on the registration requirements as they did successfully in the banking industry. So far, emphasis has been on government’s role. Other stakeholders such as the pilots, engineers, aviation core specialist trades, investors, media and air passengers have complementary responsibilities, united they become a formidable voice for the aviation industry.

AVIATIONLINE: The federal government mooted the idea of a national carrier, what will be your advice to government to avoid the pitfall of the defunct Nigeria Airways?

AVM OKANLAWON: There are enough literatures on the desirability or otherwise of establishing a national carrier. A national carrier is a thing of pride if the venture is well managed. Ethiopia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates are good examples. One common trend among the airlines mentioned is the patriotism of the governments and peoples of these countries. The desire of the Nigerian government is good provided the issue of ownership is shared between the people, government and core investors with government having the lowest share. This arrangement, in modern terms, is called a Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) model.

A national carrier will bring clout and competitiveness into the industry, the regulatory bodies must however ensure equity among the various airlines. That really is the true challenge. Here is a toast to the new Nigeria Airline.

AVIATIONLINE: What’s your verdict on the Nigerian aviation industry in the past five and a half decades?

AVM OKANLAWON: The Nigerian aviation industry deserves to be celebrated when its development is assessed in totality. Just like the Nigerian nation, the industry has been resilient. Its growth has been steady but stunted. The industry is not where it should be, but there is no denying the fact that it has made progress in certain areas but regress significantly in others. For example, the national carrier died but gave rise to the emergence of several airlines, some of which can be adjudged successful. In the area of human capacity development, the industry has not done badly, a few Nigerian professionals have earned international recognition.

The fortune of the private airlines on the other hand reflects the global trend, where prominent old players fizzled out to be replaced by others. By far, however, the most devastating aspect of the Nigerian aviation industry is that of infrastructure decay, especially the flagship airports of Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt, none of which meets world standard. Blame game apart, the Nigerian government has failed to realize the enormous capacity of the industry to generate revenue for the country. If the truth must be told, government policies since the 80s have been anti-industry. Heavily taxed, but without reciprocal infusion of fund to support the industry’s growth. Though there have been some piecemeal intervention funds, but too little to really make any meaningful impact.

The Nigerian aviation industry’s growth potential is great if the government can come up with a “10 Years Marshal Plan” to redevelop the infrastructure, establish MROs, and articulate strategic policies to address fundamental flaws in the regulatory oversight bodies. Happy 55th birthday to Nigeria and the Nigerian aviation industry. Long live Nigeria.