Using international aero-politics to grow Nigerian airlines

As uncertainties continue to hover around the resumption of international flights into Nigeria, key players are mounting pressures on the Federal Government not to shift its position on the need to enforce the principle of reciprocity on the foreign carriers operating into the country. In this piece, SHOLA ADEKOLA samples opinions of key players on the government’s decision.

Prior to now, the home countries of many of the over forty foreign airlines operating into the country, despite the unlimited opportunities their airlines enjoy here had engaged in unfair aero politics to frustrate the Nigerian airlines designated to reciprocate the air travel agreements Nigeria has with them.

This act of hostility towards the Nigerian  carriers is not limited to Europe, America and Asia but even perpetrated by fellow African countries who often work against the Nigerian airlines designated to their domains.

Amongst the agreements Nigeria has with countries around the world include: the dual designation policy it signed with the Great Britain which has seen two carriers; the British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways operating the slot of their government into Nigeria while presently no reciprocation from Nigerian side.

The open skies agreement Nigeria signed with the United States which has allowed airlines like Delta still operating into Nigeria while United Airlines operated into Nigeria up to a point until it stopped from Nigeria its zero reciprocity.

The agreement Nigeria has with the Middle East has seen three airlines, Emirates, Qatar and Etihad enjoying the slot of their government effortlessly.

Even the fellow African carriers are not left out of the one sided aero politics as they continue to frustrate the all important open skies for Africa meant for implementing the Yamoussoukro Decision initiated by African leaders since 2002 which aimed at the full integration of the African air transport market by African carriers.

While Nigeria has been at the forefront of opening its airspace to many African carriers like: RwandAir, Ethiopian, Asky, Air Lome, South African Airways and many others, majority of the African countries have continued to frustrate the implementation of the agreement as they restrict their air service markets to protect their own airlines.

Nigeria’s Air Peace airline at a point narrated the bottleneck put before it by the Togolese government which frustrated its effort to commence flights into the country. Again, many key players had before now urged the government to pull the carpets off the feet of the African airlines to send a signal to their countries that the ‘big brother’ role of Nigeria should not be taken for granted.

Despite the privileges many of the airlines enjoy from Nigeria in view of the multiple entry points and loose frequencies government doled out to them here, their home governments are known to be displaying their hatred for Nigerians and the Nigerian airlines.

The height of the unfair aero politics played out during the special evacuation flights of hundreds of Nigerians stranded in countries like Britain, Dubai and Canada when despite the air travel agreements Nigeria signed with the countries, Nigerian carriers especially Air Peace was frustrated from evacuating the stranded Nigerians for the sole purpose of giving their home airlines priority over the Nigerian carrier.

Many Nigerians home and abroad condemned the hostilities towards anything Nigerian by many of the foreign countries whose own investments and business interests enjoy government patronage to a fault here.

 

FG bows to pressures

After a long period of ignoring the different calls by many key players to government to join in playing aero politics to protect the interest of Nigerian airlines against foreign conspiracy, hope finally came the way of concerned Nigerians particularly those within the aviation circle as the federal government recently declared its interest to now enforce what it called the principle of reciprocity on the foreign airlines and their home countries.

The latest pressure being mounted on the Nigerian government to stand by its declaration has become heightened in the last few days following the announcement by government to throw open its airspace to the foreign carriers to return to the Nigerian routes after over five months of suspension of flights caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many of the foreign carriers are already gearing up to bounce back to the Nigerian market for the obvious reason of the huge market and profits they often generate, there is however, a renewed call on government to only approve the return of only foreign airlines whose countries are friendly to Nigeria and its airlines.

 

Key players canvass tit for tat

For the head of Human Resources and Administration at 7Star Hangar, an aircraft maintenance company at the Murtala Muhammed Airport and an aircraft engineer, Comrade Sheri Ayuba Kyari, he commended the action of the government to join in what he called the commensurate retaliatory aero politics saying:  “I believe we are just waking up to the reality of global aero-politics. I encourage this government action. But I pray that they will follow it up and give our domestic airlines the opportunity to utilize such Bilateral Air Services Agreements.

According to a former National President of the National Cabin Crew Association (NACCA) and now a director at Zenith Travels in Lagos, Mr Olumide Ohunayo,

It is appropriate and I support the government in reciprocating whatever is provided by any country. If we have countries that are stopping Nigerians and their airlines based on the pandemic then we also have to do the same at this point in time and that is the only way to show that there is a government that is interested in its people and protection of the citizens, which is number one priority for every government. We may not be able to stop airlines coming into the country based on the BASAs that are already in place. We can use this pandemic to build international operations into the country. We can now use it to correct errors that were made in the past, especially the multiple entry and multiple designations. The government has only approved Lagos and Abuja for international operations and they have also limited the number of flights into these two cities. As they begin to increase, I expect the government to use this opportunity to begin to streamline and watch the effects on the improvement of local airlines. The problem of our relationship with foreign airlines when it comes to operations is after the agreement; they come back, use government officials to negotiate other commercial agreements that are not in the initial bi-lateral agreement. These are the kind of agreements that take foreign airlines to other cities and increase frequencies and the capacity of aircraft that is being used. We wonder why they push for these agreements when we do not have an airline that is responding and if we have to push, can we find a way around it whereby they get a Nigerian airline involved in some of these movements beyond their point of entry rather than allow them to move into other cities. The problem is not only that of government, we also have leaders and governors who have turned flight operations into an ethnic game. You see governors who say flights must come into their states. You see governors even going beyond the minister to the presidency, just to ensure they have foreign airlines operating into their states. When we have this kind of mentality of not placing Nigeria first before personal interests, we may have a long battle ahead of us.”

Alhaji Muhammed Tukur, who is the Managing Director of Afrijet Airlines and a one-time publicity secretary of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) pledged his support for the government’s decision saying it will greatly encourage the domestic airlines in the face of bad international aero politics. His words: The foreign countries and the foreign carriers that show cooperation should also receive similar gesture while those against us should be rewarded in likewise manner. I support the government. We need to move forward.

Group Captain John Ojikutu, retired, the Managing Director of Centurion Security and a member of Aviation Round Table, in his opinion, called on the government to henceforth reduce the loose frequencies and multiple entries points hitherto granted the foreign airlines by restricting each of them to only Abuja airport or Lagos airport and not the present approval granted them to operate to the two international airports simultaneously. According to Ojikutu, the new approach should allow each of the foreign airlines to have access to one of the international airports but free to add other airports from alternate geographical areas; e.g. if an airline takes Lagos in the south, the alternate geographical areas should be in the North, like Kano or Kaduna for instance and not Abuja. “Similarly, if Abuja is taken by others, the alternate in the south should be Port Harcourt or Enugu. That way, the intrusion of international airlines into our domestic routes will be curtailed and the domestic airlines that can not effectively compete on the international routes can now take over the routes and improve their earnings in the domestic markets with increased traffic operations.”

A regular international traveller, who simply introduced himself as Alhaji Junaid, said the decision by the federal government to pay back the foreign countries in their own coins this time around was the best decision so far taken in the recent past. According to him if the decision will strengthen the Nigerian airlines and give more honour to the Nigerian traveling public who contribute in no small means to the GDP of the foreign countries, so is it.

“Going by what these foreign countries do to the Nigerian airlines and how they humiliated the entire country before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, I think the time has come for Nigeria to clip their wings. I just hope the government will not allow itself to be hoodwinked by the cronies of the foreign countries who are sadly fellow Nigerians benefitting from the bad aero politics against Nigeria. If Nigeria had been involved in this type of international aero politics, Air Peace and many other Nigerian carriers who had been humiliated by the countries would not have suffered such bad injustice”, Junaid declared.

 

Benefits of aero-politics

Key players who have thrown their weights behind the government’s decision attributed their reasons to the numerous advantages playing aero politics will bring to the country and the domestic airlines.

Besides the economic gains, Nigeria joining in international aero politics they say will bring dignity not only to the country and its citizens who travel around the world, but would encourage private investments like airline business. For the key players government should not just stop at designating its domestic airlines on international routes but go further in engaging in air transport politics to protect airlines like Air Peace against extreme protections from the foreign airlines in connivance with their home countries.

 

The fears

As the country particularly its air travelers are watching keenly to see how things play out with the foreign airlines and their home countries, many are nursing serious doubt as to if government will not reverse its decision for aero politics. According to many of the key players, there is a serious pressure being mounted on government by the allies of the countries in Nigeria to prevail on government to change the decision.

The government may have concluded the game plan and there may be no going back as the atmosphere around the aviation sector in particular is somehow tensed with threats emanating from the unions and other airport users to oppose any move by the government to chicken out of the international aero politics.

 

Nigeria Has What It Takes Not To Shift Ground:

Key players who are calling on government not to blink an eyelid as it goes to enforce the international aero politics policy are attributing this to the strategic position of the Nigerian market and the opportunities available which they said the foreign airlines cannot enjoy elsewhere.

Citing the huge market and the fact that Nigerians are known to be regular travelers not limited to any season which many foreign airlines had attested to on different occasions, the hostile foreign countries have no choice but to review their hostile and unaccommodating attitudes towards Nigeria and the Nigerian airlines designated to their countries. Though 80% of the money coming into the Nigeria’s aviation sector comes from the foreign airlines, but it is being argued that this amount remains infinitesimal compared to the capital flight they cart to their home countries regularly. The consistency of Nigerian markets has continued to serve as survival strategy to many of the foreign airlines in the face of global challenges. The key players are therefore calling on the foreign countries to learn how to accommodate Nigeria and its investments in their countries as it is being done in Nigeria.

 

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