A plane belonging to proposed national carrier, Nigeria Air, finally landed at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, Friday afternoon in fulfilment of a promise by Aviation Minister Hadi Sirika but to condemnation by the Airline Operators of Nigeria.
The outgoing Aviation Minister excitedly announced the arrival of the aircraft via a Tweet: “We are here. To Almighty God be all the glory. It has been a very long, tedious, daunting, and difficult path. We thank everyone for the support.
“This, by the will of God, will be for us and generations to come. Ya Allah make it beneficial for our country and humanity.”
But the AON described the unveiling of the aircraft as a scam, insisting that the aircraft displayed was a Boeing 737 MAX owned by Ethiopian Airlines and covered with Nigeria Air sticker.
Spokesman of AON and the Chairman of United Nigeria Airlines, Prof Obiora Okonkwo made this known in an interview on ARISE News Friday night.
Obiora said there is lack of sincerity and transparency in the process of establishing a national carrier by the Minister of Aviation and remarked that all indications point to the fact that the federal government, which has only five per cent of the shares in Nigeria Air, is bankrolling the airline, while other shareholders that have 46 per cent are quiet and Ethiopian Airlines, which has 49 per cent control as the core investor has not contributed funds to the airline.
Obiora said that AON is in court to stop the establishment of the airline because of the shadiness and lack of transparency and emphasized that the ‘charade’ that happened on Friday was to deceive the Nigerian public because the new airline has not met the five critical conditions that will enable it to secure Air Operator Certificate (AOC) from NCAA.
“There is an attempt by somebody to hang on to Nigeria Air, using it as cover to take over Nigeria’s aviation industry. So, the purpose is self-serving. The cost of the establishment of this airline is about $250 million. Who paid the $250 million? MRS and Skyway Aviation Handling Company Plc (SAHCO) listed as shareholders are not talking and have not made any contribution to the company and indications show they are not interested. Then if after eight years as Minister you can only bring in one aircraft, what do you make of such? Nigeria Air unveiling was meant to confuse Nigerians.
“Nigeria’s aircraft registration number is 5N and before you express the readiness to operate an airline you must have at least three aircraft registered in Nigeria, which you could buy or dry lease, but I can assure you that the document of the aircraft the Minister brought in is not with NCAA,” AON spokesman said.
He said that if the Minister succeeds in launching an airline without going through the required process, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) would have blacklisted Nigerian airlines because such would cast aspersion on the credibility of Nigeria’s airline certification.
The AON spokesman also said that the people behind this airline were eyeing Nigeria’s Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) rights, which is put at about $20 billion, adding that the alleged plan of Ethiopian Airlines is to force Nigerian carriers out of business with predatory prices; that is, selling tickets below profitable margins in order to force existing Nigerian carriers out of the market.
He also explained that Ethiopian Airlines planned to do this because it requested that the federal government must guaranteed all its loans and also give it 15 years tax holiday, adding that these advantages it sought would enable it survive and sustain its operations and it is targeted that in six months all Nigerian carriers would be out of business, remaining only Nigeria Air, as the East African carrier stated that Nigeria ought to have only one airline.
“Thank God NCAA refused to be cajoled. Many top NCAA personnel lost their jobs over this, but the Director General survived because the new Act regulating the authority said before you remove the Director General, you must secure approval of the Senate. Soon ICAO will come to Nigeria to audit our processes. So, Nigeria Air is dead on arrival,” he said.
Obiora expressed the hope that the in-coming government will be business oriented and run pro private sector-driven economy, observing that the federal government had for many years been unable to refine fuel locally despite the fact that it has four refineries, but Dangote, an entrepreneur built the biggest refinery in Africa, adding that national carrier model is outdated and wondered why the outgoing Minister was desperate to establish a national carrier.
He also said that domestic airlines may not have partnered with the federal government to establish an airline because what the domestic carriers need is not partnership with the federal government but support, noting that other governments after the Covid-19 pandemic supported their airlines with billions of dollars.
“We are not against the establishment of a national carrier, but we don’t want an airline that will be used to wreck the country. We don’t think this process is good for this country. We are happy NCAA stood its ground to insist that the right thing is done,” Obiora said.
Earlier on Friday afternoon before Obiora made his comments, Sirika officially unveiled the plane, a Boeing 737-800, which is one of the 35 aircraft planned for the National Carrier project.
Sirika while unveiling the plane stated that a national carrier is one infrastructure that has been missing in the general aviation dynamics of the country.
He said: “This Nigeria Air Limited, of course, obviously, it’s an entity known to Nigerian laws. There is a partnership between entrepreneurs in Nigeria and the entrepreneurs in Ethiopian Airline Consortium. Consortium is a company belonging to many partners, and it’s a very long journey.
“We started in 2016 and it ended today. There is a history behind all of these. There were challenges for that matter. We didn’t allow them to make us lose focus. We stayed with our eyes on the ball and today we’re here.
“No, it is not subjudice. If it is, we are not going to embark upon it. There’s nothing that stops us from continuing to bring developmental projects to our people. The constitution of Nigeria is very clear that it is within their rights to go to court for whatever reason they want to go to court, and it’s also within our own rights to do all the things that will promote the general well-being of Nigeria and Nigerians and this is one of it.
“The economy of Nigeria, the centrality of civil aviation and the promotion of the economy and the value addition to the GDP. It’s very important and paramount and the focus of the government and I can tell you that, from the roadmap implemented, aviation became the fastest growing sector of the economy before COVID. Even with COVID, we were the third fastest growing sector and this is the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics.
“So, in the process of establishing an airline, there are the conditions set by the regulator, which is the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). This airplane will be here and we will commence the demonstration flight to show that we can do it. Normally, I think between zero to 40 hours, but it can be less, it can be five hours, it can be two hours and this is to ensure that we are able and we have the capacity to do it.”
Speaking on the partnership with Ethiopian Airlines, Sirika said: “But, of course you know the partnership with Ethiopian Airlines, Nobody can doubt the capacity that this can happen. So, I know very well that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority will do the needful, and of course, give the clean bill to start to fly. So, this is part of the process. It’s the beginning of the establishment of the airline.”
In the business case, Sirika said it is envisaged that within the next five years, it will hit the 35 Aircraft mark: “You don’t come in one day to dump 35 airplanes. You can’t come in one day and start going to London. So, it’s a gradual process. The airplanes will be coming one after another. And until in the next five years, according to the business case, we achieve the 35 aircraft mark, from there, it continues.
“And don’t forget, this is a private sector-led airline with the skin of the government at 5% and there is no stripping right by the government. So, Nigerians are welcome and I am sure it’s going to go to the public for sale at some point for 5%.”
On his part, the Chief Commercial Officer, Ethiopian Airline, Lemma Yadecha Gudeta, while commending the effort of the federal government, assured that the project under the watch of the Ethiopian Airlines, would ensure economic development for the country.
Gudeta however assured that Nigeria Air would be a one billion dollars project in five years’ time, stating: “As far as the initial business plan that we are working on in collaboration with stakeholders in the consortium, Nigerian air will be a one billion US dollar company in five years’ time.
“As a company in Africa, which operated for the last 77 years in aviation with Ethiopian Airlines is very much pleased to be part of the beginning of the Nigeria national carrier and we strongly believe that our presence here in Nigeria will serve as a way of supporting the economic growth of Nigeria.”
Chinedu Eze and Jasim Sumaina