Havoc in the air! COVID-19: Aviation, tourism sectors in disarray

• 124,500 travel agencies jobs threatened • We have lost NGN386.10 bn —Akporiaye

Year 2020 will not only earn the label of the most disastrous year for global air transport, particularly the country’s aviation sector, obviously due to the outbreak and spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic to Nigeria and other parts of the world writes SHOLA ADEKOLA.

WHEN coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, China late last year, not many countries took notice, but by the turn of 2020 and the end of the first quarter of the year, the whole world had not only taken notice: millions of the citizens had become victims of the virus.

In Nigeria, the virus berthed in February through an Italian index case and has since affected over 14,000 people and killed almost 400 (officially,), throwing all sectors of the economy, particularly the aviation sector, into a serious predicament.

In order not to allow the virus to get the better of the entire system, the Federal Government, like those of other nations, announced several measures meant to contain further spread of the virus.

Most of the measures have been found to be mainly targeted at the aviation sector for understandable reasons such as the use of the airports which has become the fastest and safest means of transportation and connectivity to other parts of the world.

For obvious reasons, air transport has played a major role in the spread of the virus as was made possible through flight operations which made the sector the first casualty of the measures.

Among the measures so far put on the ground to prevent further spread of the virus is the introduction of more safety precautions onboard flights, deep medical screening of passengers, closure of airports and subsequent suspension of flight operations.

Consequently, all these measures have remained the darkest cloud hanging on the future of the sector with the tough hardship brought by the virus putting all business activities in the aviation industry on a life support.

Though the Federal Government has partially eased the lockdown with the announcement of June 21, 2020 as the date for the reopening of five of the 22 airports and resumption of flights on the domestic scene only the situation, however remains dicey.

With the June 21 fixed for resumption of flights and preparations by all stakeholders towards bringing life back to the sector, the havoc so far wrought on the entire sector by the pandemic can never make operational activities pick up as fast as expected.

A majority of the sector’s key players who spoke to Sunday Tribune have been crying blue murder following the economic torture COVID-19 has subjected them to. Mostly hit in Nigeria by the pandemic are the domestic airlines.

Going by the declaration of the umbrella body of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) under the leadership of their president, Captain Nogie Megisson, within the first three months of the lockdown, airlines have already lost more than N360 billion the amount which has since increased to between N400 billion and N500 billion.

The same sad story also came from the camp of the ground handling companies with the tourism sector not left out of the state of hopelessness thrown at them by the virus.

They have caused the sector uncontrolable haemorhage thus some of the operators of domestic airlines which spoke to Sunday Tribune confirmed that they have lost billions to the virus

 

We have lost N386.10 billion —Travel Agencies

The tourism sector has become one of the most badly hit and this has been attested to by the president of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Mrs Susan Akporiaye, while speaking to the Sunday Tribune.

According to Akporiaye, from the data released on April 23, 2020 by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) on the impact of the pandemic, representing 290 airlines including 41 participating airlines in Nigeria and about 900 accredited Nigerian travel agencies, Nigeria is the second hardest hit country in Africa with 4.7 million fewer travellers resulting in N386.10 billion revenue loss, risking 125,400 jobs and N347.10 billion in contribution to Nigeria economy.

These estimates by IATA, Akporiaye said, are based on a scenario of severe travel restrictions lasting for three months, with a gradual lifting of restrictions in domestic markets, followed by regional and intercontinental.

While comparing revenue raked in by the travel agencies in the first quarter of 2019 to the same period in 2020, Akporiaye said due to the pandemic; “I saw a decline of about 129 per cent in terms of sales revenue.”

She canvassed a bailout for the travel agencies ranging from financial grants, soft loans to even tax holidays.

According to her, “If the bailouts we are soliciting from our government pull through, then I am sure we will all pull through. However, the likelihood that not every one of us in the industry will make it through is in the upper percentile, without the needed bailout. If the government continues to engage relevant stakeholders and we all work together, I am optimistic that by the end of this year we might begin to see trickles of tourism activities and growing,” she stated.

 

SAHCO has lost N1.9 billion

The Skyway Aviation Handling Company Plc (SAHCO) whose major service is provision of ground handling services to both domestic and foreign airlines, including other logistics to relevant businesses across the country’s airports, has a sorry tale to tell about the impact of the pandemic.

According to the Manager, Corporate Communications for the company, Mrs Vanessa Adetola Uansohia, following the inability of the company to cater to the needs of its clients in the past three months due to the closure of airports and suspension of flights and other activities, “we have incurred a loss of about N1.9 billion in the past three months and if the closure of the airports continues, we would continue to lose more. We have to ensure there is 24 hours power supply to store cargo, especially temperature sensitive freight.”

On how the company and its workers have been coping with the lockdown, Mrs Adetola said,  “SAHCO had invested in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to ensure that all staff are protected as they discharge their job functions. We have also provided washing basins, soap and hand sanitizers in front of our facilities to be used by all that will be accessing our facilities. In addition, we have security officers stationed with a contactless thermometer for temperature reading of all coming to our facilities. We equally have a monitoring team that keeps abreast with the WHO and the NCDC updates and we act accordingly to the guidelines and communicate same to all staff.”

On the possibility of seeking bailout from the government, the SAHCO image maker declared that: “SAHCO will appreciate it if we benefit from the government bailout. First of all, we would like the government to take over the social cost of SAHCO at least till September 2020; this will help us to recover better from the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on our revenue. We would also propose that all tax payments be deferred till 2021 when we hope that the COVID-19 pandemic would have been under control or eradicated altogether.”

 

It’s been tough —GMD NAHCO

Stories coming from each of the domestic airlines are that of great financial losses attributed to the pandemic lockdown.

Though the National Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO) declined to give the exact figures of its losses since the meltdown, it however said the losses had been substantial even as it declared that to ensure continuity in the supply value chain, it has absorbed demurrage waiver to the tune of 80 per cent whilst in the maritime sector government took on the responsibility.

The Group Managing Director of NAHCO, Mrs Tokunbo Fagbemi also spoke on the situation at hand. According to her, “The past three months have been tough. We have continued to provide essential services for essential cargo and evacuation flights. We look forward to normalcy and we are prepared for the resumption of flights. We have updated our Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to cope with post COVID-19 requirements and all necessary training ongoing. We are following all reopening procedures; for example, in our warehouse, we have social distance markings etc. We are eager for things to return to normal.

‘’Our esteemed clients have been greatly missed, and we can’t wait to provide our numerous client airlines with our regular exceptional handling.”

Like SAHCO, NAHCO said it would not object to government’s bailout but specified that such “bailout could come in form of tax rebate or tax exception or salary bailout. FAAN could give a year free rent or suspend yearly concessionaire payments and so on. It will be a great help for government to intervene, to save the industry from these challenging times.”

 

We have lost between N7bn and N9bn —Dana Air

Dana Air, one of the foremost domestic airlines operating profitably before the pandemic started, also painted a gloomy picture of the impact of COVID-19 on the airline. Speaking on behalf of the airline, its Corporate Communications Manager, Mr Kingsley Ezenwa, revealed that since the lockdown of airports and suspension of flights, Dana Air has lost an estimated N9billion.

On the airline’s coping strategy since the meltdown, Ezenwa stated: “It’s a pandemic and it affects everyone. Our flight suspension was in the interest of our staff and guests and we will do all within our powers to collectively fight the virus. We have also had to keep our engineers working all through the lockdown to keep our aircraft sound and ready for flights anytime. So, as a safety-conscious airline, we had to do all that to ensure our customers can fly safely and peacefully when the restrictions are lifted.”

The Dana Air image maker, however, added that “Although the airline industry is the worst-hit in this pandemic, we have no choice but to find a way to keep the airline afloat pending if there will be or not be some level of support from the government. We have survived many challenges of the industry for the past 11 years of our operations and we will continue to be prudent, creative and smart in managing our affairs such that staff are not sacked arbitrarily. I can tell you authoritatively that Dana Air is not sacking but will manage its staff strength efficiently.”

Speaking on the readiness of Dana Air for the June 21, 2020 resumption date and the airworthiness status of its aircraft, Ezenwa stated: “Dana Air is 100 per cent ready. Like I said, we’ve had our engineers on the ground all through the lockdown. Also, all required training and guidelines have been done and implemented. Some of the guidelines were even in place before the lockdown and we have included the additional ones as recommended by NCAA.  We are ready to welcome and fly our passengers safely.

 

Our aircraft are ready -Air Peace

Air Peace Airline’s spokesperson, Stanley Olisa, did not state the exact amount of financial loss incurred by the airline, but expressed its readiness to resume business on June 21, 2020.

“We are ready, both technically and operationally and we are complying with the directives that have been issued by the aviation authorities. We are very ready to resume. Our aircraft is ready. During this period, we have scaled up technical maintenance and beefed up cabin refresh of our aircraft to keep it safe for our esteemed customers,” he said.

 

We never left the airlines alone —NCAA

The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) in its own submission told Sunday Tribune that contrary to the fears being raised about the safety of the aircraft of the domestic operators, there should be no cause for alarm as it has been working with the airlines since the lockdown to ensure their aircraft is in good order.

Speaking on the readiness of airlines for June 21 resumption date, the General Manager, Public Affairs in the NCAA, Mr. Sam Adurogboye, said their readiness will be determined after “our meetings with them to review their responses to our checklists.

‘’The type of maintenance required has been communicated to them via appropriate Advisory Circulars issued in the course of the lockdown, even the kind of training of personnel that can be done online so that they wouldn’t become rusty. NCAA has never left the airlines alone.

“Safe operations require collective efforts from the entire aviation system chain. From the Civil Aviation Authority to airlines and all other stakeholders involved in the operations of aircraft.  NCAA has been working throughout the period of the lockdown mainly to ensure that the airlines are able to return to service at short notice.

“In summary, we are ready to deliver on our mandate, safe flight operations.”

 

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