Capt. Ado Sanusi, the Vice-President (Flight Operations) and Deputy Managing Director of Arik Air Nigeria Limited, speaks with Daily Trust on Sunday on the state of aviation in Nigeria, the national carrier and the contributions of Arik Air which will be 10 years old this year.
What’s the place of aviation in the effort to drive the country’s economy?
Th aviation industry is a catalyst for the economic growth of any nation. The countries that are using aviation as a tool to grow their economies are many within Africa and in the world.Of course the first thing that comes to mind is Emirates with the Dubai case and you look at Ryanair, with the tourism that it has helped to grow. So most countries use aviation as a catalyst for their economic growth and we in this country have to also look that way. We have to look at it as a tool that we can use to create economic growth via either foreign direct investment or creating tourism and also bringing people, connecting commerce and all that. The federal government should have a deliberate policy to ensure that we have a sustainable aviation industry. I believe the present administration is looking at the policy on aviation, the roadmap and the strategy going forward.
You said the aviation industry is a catalyst for national growth. What would you say is the bane of the industry in Nigeria?
The main issue that we must address is lack of infrastructure. The aviation industry has grown over the years in Nigeria, the airlines have been growing; some have grown and died. But the infrastructure has remained stagnant. It is just recently that they started looking at airport buildings renovation but we have not looked at the airside, which is the tarmac expansion, finger expansion, the taxiway expansion, runways and all that. And we have also not looked at infrastructure like landing aids and landing at night. This will increase the utilization of the airports which will give the airlines profitability because they will be operating at different number of hours. What we also tend to forget is that the parastatals must be re-engineered to face modern reality. Air navigation service should be commercialised; we must look at what the airlines want to provide the needed services. Then then the regulators should regulate in such a way that they don’t choke the airlines.
Also whenever you want to sign a BASA (Bilateral Air Services Agreement), you must ensure that you protect your airlines so that the small market they have is protected from the airlines that are coming in. You have to make a deliberate policy on even clearing of goods that are relating to airlines. And then in the final part of it, we must also look at the funds the airlines have access to.In Nigeria, I am paying 17, 18 or even 21 per cent interest rate, while my counterparts outside the country are paying 3 to 4 per cent or at most 5 per cent and they are enjoying a tenure of maybe 15 years, while the best I can get probably is a tenure of 10 years.
What other challenges would you say are causing airlines to fold up under 10 years of operation in Nigeria?
Most of the challenges are again the hostile environment. The IATA (International Air Transport Association) suggests that start-up airlines should be given three years of honeymoon time when they enjoy tax exemption and the airport environment will usually give you free landing and parking and all those charges. And some countries, even say, ‘in the next three to four years, we are going to give you free navigational charges so that you can now grow’. But in Nigeria the parastatals are in competition with the airlines. Before an airline even goes into operation, they are already sending bills. We do understand the parastatals have to earn money but we also have to make sure that the airlines are alive for the parastatals to earn money.
What is the level of patronage from the flying public given the stories we hear that patronage has dwindled?
Well, there is a decline, of course, because of the global economy. There is a decline of the flying public. We have seen that decline but most importantly now that we have the naira sliding against the dollar, I think Nigerians and corporate entities that are doing business in Nigeria should be compelled to buy Nigerian products, to buy into Nigerian airlines that are flying abroad, like Arik Air.
It was recently reported that two foreign airlines repatriate over $2bn annually to their countries, What are the implication for Nigerian airlines?
That is capital flight. This amount is repatriated to the countries of the foreign airlines. If this money was ploughed back into our economy, you can imagine the strength of the naira by now; if we have $1bn ploughed back into our own economy it would make great impact because Nigerian airlines employ Nigerians, they give third party contracts to other companies- ground handling, catering and all that. So if you buy Nigerian ticket, you are actually helping more than 2,000, 3,000 people because it has a chain reaction.
There used to be a N300bn intervention fund for airlines. How many Nigerian airlines benefited from the fund?
So many things have been said about intervention fund because I keep saying it that you have to understand what is called intervention fund. If you say intervention fund, is it a free fund that was meant to intervene so that the airlines can access it and not a loan? What I do understand is that there was some money set aside to help ailing banks that gave loans to airlines and the loans have become bad loans. As far as Arik is concerned, the fund was not given to Arik. It is a good thing that the Central Bank and Bank of Industry are still there, which are the key parts of this so-called intervention fund. So we should please try and clarify who got access to the fund, what the fund was meant for and how much was actually given individual airlines.
The federal government recently signed a BASA with Qatar. What are your thoughts on BASAs?
It is a very good thing to sign BASA and it is a very good thing to open up your airspace to people but also it is extremely important that when BASAs are signed, you have the capacity to reciprocate and when you don’t have the capacity to do that, then you should be able to carry along the potential companies that are able to reciprocate. Other than that, you are just opening your country to become a dumping ground. If we have the capacity to reciprocate, it means we would also capture some travellers.
What is your view on having a new national carrier?
It is a welcome idea. I have said I would love to have a very good national carrier. Any patriotic Nigerian will support the national carrier, just as any good Nigerian will support a very good highway from Lagos to Maiduguri or high speed train from Lagos to Abuja. But are these feasible? So a national carrier, I think, can be part of the thing that will come last in my own humble opinion. But as I said, every Nigerian will like to have a national carrier; it is the pride of the nation. But the same national carrier will operate in the same environment that we are operating in- very bad infrastructure, very bad airports, very bad security in the airports and all that.
Arik Air will be 10 years. What would you say have been its achievements?
Arik Air has done very well. We commend the owner. They have brought a new concept into aviation in this country. They came with a different plan, started with brand new aircraft and getting the best maintenance facilities- the first in the world- Lufthansa Technique, the biggest MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) facility. We’ve equally placed emphasis on training of pilots and engineers. We’ve been expanding, we have put our footprints in West and Central Africa. We are the only airline with Part 129, which is the permit for a foreign airline to operate into the United States despite the fact that Nigeria is Category One.
We have gone through IOSA. About two or three times, we have voluntarily done the enhanced IOSA, which is called E-IOSA.
And, in the 10 years we have had challenges. The environment we operate in among others. Our aim is to have 90 per cent of our flights going within 10 minutes.