The unprecedented steps taken by the Ministry of Aviation in recent times in recouping itsÂ money from concessionaires and heavily indebted airlines have yielded positive results forÂ the government.
The money must be used judiciously in developing infrastructure and improving efficiency andÂ the harrowing living conditions of aviation workers. Over the last three weeks alone, aboutÂ N200 million has been recouped by the National Airspace Management Agency, NAMA, as terminalÂ navigational charges.
Recalcitrant airlines such as Arik Air were even grounded for refusing to pay in time andÂ was only cleared to fly its 120 daily domestic flights after it paid N50 million to NAMA.Â Â The last time an airline was grounded in Nigeria by the government over debt was in 2003.
And even though the dispute over the exact amount owed by airlines has remained a matter ofÂ bitter wrangling and litigations, the ministry wielded the big stick and compelled airlinesÂ to clear their debts and adopt the â€˜pay as you goâ€™ mode of payment introduced by NAMA on 1Â September 2010.
The new mode of payment compels Nigerian airlines to pay terminal navigational chargesÂ before their planes can be cleared to fly by NAMA. Prior to the new policy, airlines hadÂ accumulated millions of naira in debt which they were unable to clear. This affectedÂ government agencies negatively in recruiting new staff and paying salaries.
The situation was so bad that last month, the Minister of Aviation, Mrs. Fidelia Njeze, metÂ with various stakeholders in the aviation sector and introduced new methods of moneyÂ collection and sanctions for the defaulters. Since then, hundreds of millions of naira haveÂ poured into the bank accounts of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, theÂ Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, and NAMA. Yesterday for instance, over N21 millionÂ was paid to NCAA by Arik Air as debts.
The Nigerian aviation industry faces many challenges of gargantuan proportions which must beÂ addressed urgently if the sector is to move forward and have a meaningful impact on theÂ countryâ€™s economy.
For instance, our poorly maintained terminal buildings have become obsolete and have notÂ been expanded in many years. Our airports are not properly fenced and this has led toÂ various unfortunate incidents in recent times with cows, carsÂ and commercial motorcyle,Â okada finding their way to the runways, taxiways and aprons.
Poorly paid air traffic controllers have also been working for about 10 hours a day. This isÂ contrary to what obtains in other lands where they work for a maximum of two hours. WhenÂ fatigue sets in, an air traffic controller who works long hours cannot be vigilant enough toÂ direct planes. The lives of hundreds of air travellers are therefore endangered by tiredÂ workers. This is unacceptable.
Electricity has not also be constant in our airports. The modern public address systems andÂ air field lightings are all missing. The Emergency Operating Centres, EOC, that must beÂ present in all airports to coordinate emergencies in case of an accident, are all not inÂ place. This is contrary to recommendations by the International Civil Aviation Organisation,Â ICAO, which regulates world aviation.
Aviation fuel, known as Jet A1, has also become very expensive for the airlines. ManyÂ airlines are now on the brink of collapse because of the money spent on fuelling theirÂ aircraft. Oil marketers have accused the government of taxing them heavily and asking themÂ to reduce their prices. Many airlines operating in Nigeria now buy fuel outside the countryÂ but carry Nigerian passengers.
Even though the current minister of Aviation has taken some urgent steps such as revampingÂ the air-conditioning systems at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, MMIA, in LagosÂ and bringing accountability and transparency into the aviation sector, more needs to be doneÂ for the sector to become viable again.