The aviation industry in Nigeria is undergoing a transition, as new airlines emerge, law makers review civil aviation policies, and the industry struggles to recover from the COVID-19 and sundry challenges. Capt. Musa Nuhu, Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), in this exclusive interview with Aviation & Allied Business, explains new measures to strengthen the CAA and Nigerian airlines, and promote regional collaboration in Africa.
Q: How will you describe the aviation industry in Nigeria, and how have you been able to manage the setbacks of the COVID-19 so far?
A: It’s my pleasure to be here with Aviation & Allied Business Journal, which is one of the foremost aviation journals not only in Nigeria but in the Africa region.
The aviation industry in Nigeria has a huge potential that can make major contributions to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Nigeria. However, I think our potential has been under-utilized for various reasons; some of which are within the purview of the industry, and a lot of them like the macro- and micro-economic factors are outside the control of the aviation industry.
The aviation industry is usually a reflection of the economy of a country in which it exists. If you look at Nigeria with the population of 200 million plus pre-COVID-19, having the total of about 12 million passengers domestically, the number of passengers travelling by air is less than 10% of the population. And even the 12 million is probably just 3 million passengers repeating flights.
So, the aviation industry has a huge potential, and as a regulatory body, we have a critical role to play in exploiting the huge potential of the industry to make significant contribution to the nation’s economy. Currently, aviation contributes a meager 0.7% of the GDP and the plan of the Federal Ministry under the leadership of the Honorable Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, is to grow that in the medium-term to 5%. That’s why they have come up with the aviation roadmap, airport concessioning, MRO, aviation leasing companies, airline, and all that.
We as the regulator have an important role to play because we are like the heart of the system; what we do affects whatever is going on; we look at regulations and policies to support not only government-led roadmaps but also the private sector activities so that we can really achieve the full potential of the aviation industry.
Q: Manpower training is at the core of your functions. How are you ensuring that your staff remain well trained in view of new aircraft types, new airlines and the pandemic?
A: The issue of manpower is one of the biggest challenges we are facing; the technical manpower, the flight operations inspectors, aviation safety inspectors, aerodrome and the airspace inspectors, etc. involve pilots and engineers with significant years of experience.
One of the issues we have is that because we are a public service organization we are tied to the civil service salary scale. However, in order to hire our technical staff, we have to compete with the very industry we regulate. For flight operation inspectors, for instance, we need someone with at least 4000 hours flying time, and we pay them salaries comparable to what the airlines will pay them. They can’t just come to work for the civil aviation regulatory body and earn 20% or 30% of what they earn in the industry; so it’s a difficult thing for us. This is not a peculiar problem with Nigeria, it’s a global issue. However, we are working with the relevant government agencies in the civil service scheme of service to see how we can get the inspectors proper placement in the scheme of things at least to attract more people to come and work with us.
Training is one of the key areas we are giving a high priority in NCAA now, because we have to be at least as good as those we are oversighting, but the ideal situation is for us to be better than them.
We have a significant number of our inspectors who have not done their mandatory training. In the past, inspectors were sent outside the country to do this core mandatory training at a very high cost to the Agency. However, we found out that we have ICAO certified instructors in Nigeria. In fact, ICAO requests us to send our instructors to other countries to train them. If we have in-house capacity then why do we send our people out for training? So we decided to domesticate the training. We started the training in the last quarter of 2020 and we expect it to be completed by the second quarter of 2022; and about 500 courses will be done so that all our inspectors would complete the mandatory training.
In the past, for financial constraints, you can’t send more than 50 people in a year for training; Even if you are sending 50 to 60 people yearly, it will take you about 8 to 10 years to complete this training. From our calculation, it would have cost us over 4 million dollars for course fees and staff allowances to send staff outside the country for training, we are not even talking about the air tickets. Now we are doing this within 18 months instead of 8 to 10 years and we are spending just over 500 million Naira compared to 4 million Dollars. It is significant for the country and for the regulatory body as the money is spent in Nigeria’s economy.
However there are some courses that are not practicable for us to do in Nigeria, like simulator recurrent training for some of our inspectors and some specialized courses. In this regard, we bring trainers to Nigeria. For some of our economic regulation courses, we are bringing IATA and some support organizations to come to Nigeria and train our people. However, there are still some courses that we still have to send people abroad for; but at least we have significantly reduced the cost of training and also added value to the local economy.
We also want to strengthen capacity of our staff to be more effective in the implementation of economic regulation. When people think about NCAA, or airline failures, a lot of people think about safety and security alone; but a significant part of our responsibility as enshrined in the 2006 Civil Act, is economic regulation.
And we can trace significant failures within the industry to economic regulatory matters; so we need to be more effective and enhance our capacity to be able to guide them and work with them to avoid these pitfalls economic regulation-wise.
Q: Are you worried about the challenge of air cargo in Nigeria and how do you plan to address this, given that many foreign airlines made much revenue from cargo during the COVID-19, while in Nigeria, it appears that the opposite is the case?
A: I absolutely agree with you on this. On the issue of air cargo domestically, regionally and internationally Nigerian industry’s performance is very poor. You could see that the COVID-19 exposed the weak stance of the Nigeria operators on the issue of cargo. We were having emergency shipments in Nigeria; and medical and food supply and the vaccine delivery were done by foreign airlines including some African airlines, European and Middle-Eastern airlines.
Most of the issues with cargo depend on the business model of operators; and we cannot regulate that. However, we can encourage the airlines by making our requirements much easier for them so that they can go into air cargo services. Cargo operations by Nigerian airlines is something we really encourage, and, with the coming of Single African Air Transport Market (SAATAM), and Nigeria being the biggest market in the continent, we hope our airlines will really tap into that and expand their cargo operation.
We plan to do a workshop for the industry in Nigeria this year in conjunction with the African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC) which is the Executing Agency of the SAATM, to explain the benefits to the industry in Nigeria and to encourage participation not only on the passenger side but also on cargo.
There is this commodities market just on the outskirts of Kano, which is one of the largest grain markets in Africa; and people come there places like Senegal, Mali, Central African Republic, etc. to buy grains and ship them by trucks which takes days or weeks, making the foodstuffs no longer fresh when they arrive their destinations.
However, if you send 30 tons of these goods on B737 from Kano, it will take 3-4 hours to their destinations instead of taking 10 days by truck. If you also look at the cost by road, I’m sure will be cheaper per ton to get these goods there and fresh by air. This is just one example of the benefits of SAATM, it opens cargo opportunities, as we are also talking about the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Nigerian airlines and Nigerian businesses are in good position to grow the aviation industry and significantly create employment in the value-chain.
Q: Recently the world remembered the 9/11 security challenge, how is NCAA ensuring that the aviation industry in Nigeria is taking the security as a serious priority?
A: Security is one of our paramount responsibilities. Being the regulator of the industry, the NCAA is a critical component of the nation’s security architecture. One of our responsibilities is to partner with other government agencies responsible for security at the airports. We supervise and approve the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) AVSEC (aviation security). Considering the country’s size and the number of airports, I hope to see enhanced and better collaboration with other security agencies to enforce security.
In addition, we have international organizations that audit our security system from places like the US and the UK; and if they have any findings, we work with FAAN to ensure the gaps are closed.
Q: Nigeria has performed well with zero accidents for scheduled commercial airlines since 2012; how are you keeping up this safety level, and would you say that the industry is benefitting from this safety record in terms of aircraft leasing and insurance rates?
A: The safety perception of a country’s aviation industry plays a significant role in the issues of leasing aircraft at good commercial rates. We thank God that we have done fairly well in safety, but I think there is a lot of room for significant improvement. What is also critical in addition to safety is the Cape Town Convention.
When people lease aircraft, they sign an agreement that, upon violation and when the lessor wants, the aircraft is deregistered by the Agency and returned to the lessor immediately. But in the past we have had issues where people fail to comply with their leasing agreements, rather they go to court and get injunctions and we can’t release the aircraft. That has done more damage to the Nigerian industry in terms of getting favourable leasing rates.
On the Cape Town Convention, honestly the rating of Nigeria has been on the poor side. But since we came into office, we have successfully dealt with about five to six Cape Town Convention-related issues. In fact recently we deregistered one helicopter and returned it to the lessor; and these have helped our ratings. But there is still a long way to go, as the international market wants to see consistency. We will keep working on that and hopefully our rating within the Cape Town Convention community will significantly improve and help our operators get good market rates rather than the requirements for ridiculous guarantees.
We are planning of having a retreat for the National Judicial Council involving other international aviation organizations i.e. AFCAC, ICAO, IATA, and the Cape Town Convention Committee, so we can explain the need to comply with the Cape Town Convention and other treaties that Nigeria is signatory to and which are domesticated in Nigeria. So, when cases go to court, the judges will be better informed and know what they need to do to ensure that Nigeria is in compliance with all those treaties we have signed, especially the Cape Town Convention.
Q: As the government plans to concession 4 Nigerian airports, how do you look forward to the regulation of the concessionaires, and are you satisfied with your agency’s oversight of other government agencies in the industry?
A: The issue of concessioning is a government policy and not a regulatory matter. However, whoever wins the concession, NCAA has a role to play in ensuring they have the capacity and willingness comply with all our regulations. Before the final concession we will sit down and interact with whoever is there, to ensure compliance with our regulations. Whether it is a domestic or foreign concessionaire, they must comply with our regulations; it is part of our responsibility to ensure that the way we oversight FAAN we will also oversight them too as regards the terminals that will be concessioned.
Q: The Nigerian Civil Aviation Act is being reviewed at the National Assembly, what key changes do you expect in the final document, and how will the Nigerian Civil Aviation Policy (NCAP) impact on Nigeria’s economic development?
A: Well, since the last Act in 2006, the global industry and domestic industry have significantly changed especially with the significant impact of the COVID-19 on the industry. And at the international level at ICAO, so many SARPs have been developed and many new issues have come up, like the environment, RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems), cyber security, future aviation, etc. So, our new Act and mandate should give us the legal backing to deal with these matters because right now those are not covered.
Hopefully, once it is signed into law by His Excellency Mr. President, we plan to call a stakeholders meeting to review our regulations to include these new areas. We will also look at other areas to make our regulations much better and reflect the current realities of the industry to help the industry prosper.
I particularly think we need to look at our general aviation sector, and we need to have smart regulations. We need to get the right balance without compromising safety and security matters, but really stimulate the growth of the general aviation sector. If you look closely, countries that have a strong airline industry also have a strong general aviation industry.
After reviewing our regulations, it’s important for industry to sit down and collectively do a strategic plan for the industry, to determine where we want to be in five or ten years, so we all agree collectively and every sector, as a team, will get to that vision in the future.
But the most important thing is that the world has changed and we need to change as well. So, we are in the process of automation of NCAA, and we are almost getting the final approval to start the automation. It’s going to be a three to four years project, and it will reduce the human factor issues, and make NCAA more efficient in terms of processing documents and payments.
You know one important thing with this automation is not only the efficiency and cost effectiveness, but you will get good data. With the proper data, you become more proactive and predictive, and we can start planning well ahead to deal with industry growth. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but we have no choice, the industry is growing domestically, we are having more airlines coming, more airports are coming too and we are having other allied businesses within the industry. Not only is the data increasing, but it is becoming more sophisticated to deal with manually.
It’s going to take a lot of determination and leadership from the top management, we have to keep trying to get everybody on board; and as a regulatory body we have to start first; our leadership has to be by example to the industry.
Importantly also, perform as envisioned from the start. We are planning to empower NCAA regional offices very soon by giving them the proper and adequate manpower and resources, and delegate some level of authority to them at the local level so that they are closer to the operators. So, if you are an operator in Kano, Port Harcourt, etc., you don’t have to come to Abuja; you can deal with the regional officers.
We have to look at what is available to us, and prioritize for the different programs we have, so that we can achieve them seamlessly without strangling ourselves financially.
Q: How would you describe NCAA’s cooperation with other CAAs in Africa, and how effective do you think the regional safety oversight bodies like the Banjul Accord Group Aviation Safety Oversight Organization (BAGASOO) have been in improving aviation safety?
A: Well NCAA has good relationship with the regional CAAs, and I know most of the DGs personally. But certainly the relationships can be better because sometimes there’s a bit of competition between the countries trying to support their own operators and their own companies.
Nigeria is the host country of BAGASOO, and we have been working very closely with BAGASOO member countries, and BAGASOO does help a lot. Right now it’s helping Guinea in preparation for their audit later this year, and it’s going to work also with Liberia. For Nigeria, in some areas we do not have necessary personnel, we are going to work with BAGASOO for our audit coming up next year. But the issue is that some countries find it difficult to pay their financial obligations to BAGASOO. So, financially sometimes it is very difficult for BAGASOO.
I am a champion of regional safety oversight organisations, I think it can really help countries. There are issues of sovereignty and countries sometimes are afraid of giving up their authority. While BAGASSOO can do some of your functions, why don’t you give them that authority? Hopefully someday we will get there.
Q: How is the NCAA positioning for the implementation of SAATM and AfCFTA which will involve increased movement of Nigerian and African airlines and passengers?
A: Yes, on the issue of SAATM, for some reason there’s a bit of resistance from the Nigerian operators; and I’m a bit surprised, you know, because if you feel Ethiopian Airlines comes to four airports in Nigeria and carries passengers from Nigeria, I don’t see why our own airlines cannot compete with them, even on the regional routes; not going to Europe or America. Why can’t we fly from Port Harcourt direct to Johannesburg? Why can’t we fly Port Harcourt direct to Kenya? Why can’t Nigerian operators do that? It’s important and a huge opportunity for the Nigerian industry.
I told you we’re going to do the workshop and show the industry that it’s to their own advantage. But we’ve seen one or two airlines that have submitted requests for regional operations within Africa. Once the Ministry designates them, we work with them to help them fly to those destinations; and I think that the realization has started sinking in.
I don’t have to fly to UK, North America or Asia; with the proper size planes, there’s enough market in Africa; and it’s going to be cheaper and the profit margin would be better.
We can connect even starting from the West and Central African region with the population of 600 million people, and that is huge market untapped. We are at the edge of West Africa and Central Africa, so we can spread our wings in both directions; and later you could start to the Southern, Eastern and Northern parts of Africa.
Egypt Air comes to Nigeria, Air Algerie is planning to start operation into Nigeria, Air Maroc comes to Nigeria and they carry many people, because there’s a lot of Nigerian population that ends up in Egypt, and there are people that go further. It is same with Sudan; we have two or three airlines coming to Kano from Sudan, and we have a huge Nigerian population in Sudan – a significant part of Sudanese population traces their origin to northern Nigeria -; and we have a lot of students there, so if the Sudan Airlines come here, why are Nigerian airlines not going there?
But I think the mindset is changing within the industry and hopefully by the time we do this meeting on SAATM, things will get a lot better. There’s a lot of work to be done and NCAA will have to coordinate with other government agencies to do this.
Q: Environmental sustainability is a major issue for the global aviation industry, how is NCAA responding in this regard?
A: When I was appointed to ICAO in 2016, the CORSIA (Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for Intentional Aviation) was just about to begin, and I am proud to say I was one of the people that voted for that. And that whole scheme was organized and done almost single-handedly by Dr. Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, the then Nigerian ICAO Council President.
So the environment is at the bottom of my heart; and with my predecessor, the late DG Capt. Muhtar Usman, may his soul rest in peace, Nigeria opted to voluntarily participate in CORSIA. We did not have to, but we knew it was important.
We have a huge project we’re going to launch in the next couple of weeks; and you’ll be proud of what we have done. And there’s a UN carbon summit coming up in Glasgow in November, hopefully we will participate and showcase to the world that environment is important to us.
Whether we accept it or not, in different parts of the country there are different kinds of impact on the environment; in some areas in the north there is desertification; and in the south we have gully erosions, etc. And that’s a lot.
One of the most significant environmental factors in Nigeria is the shrinking of the Lake Chad; it’s the same environmental factor. We can work together and see the little we can do to help, whether it’s afforestation to check erosions, etc., it matters.
Q: What would you say about the COVID-19 related restrictions against the industry today, moving forward?
A: The saddest thing is that in the COVID-19 restrictions there is no unified global agreement or standard, and that is what is really hampering movement. I hope to see in the near future under ICAO collaboration with WHO, WTO and IATA, a global standard and requirement for these protocols that will make things much easier in terms of financial implications and inconveniences to the passenger.
Q: So what is your word to the industry in Nigeria and the rest of the continent as we move forward in the SAATM and AFCFTA environment?
A: The NCAA is an organization in transition. We are partners in progress, and we work together for the success of the industry. We’re here to work together with the industry to solve their problems in the provision of affordable, comfortable, safe and secure air transportation to the traveling public.
For the African region, there needs to be more collaboration and working together as a team, starting from the regions – ECOWAS, SADC, and other regions – for all of us to be able to exploit the benefits of SAATM, AFCFTA and others. We need more collaboration and commonalities in our regulations so that it’s easier for us and for our airlines to fly from one country to another.
Q: Looking forward, what are your plans and where do you hope to see the Nigerian aviation industry over the next 10 years?
A: I want to see Nigeria having dominant carriers in Africa and providing world-class services. Hopefully, if the airport concession goes through, we will have beautiful facilities that will really facilitate passenger travel that is safe and secure.
I will like to see the industry making significant contribution to the national economy in terms of employment, creating allied businesses and contribution to the gross domestic product. I want to see Nigeria grow a world-class aviation industry, and I also want to see a regulatory body that is well respected and well reformed, very effective and efficient in execution of its core responsibilities and statutory functions as enshrined in the Civil Aviation Act.
I want to see the cargo business of Nigerian airlines that would exploit to the fullest the advantages of the SAATM and AfCFTA for their benefit and enhancing the living standards of our own people. Overall, I want to see a wonderful industry that Nigerians would really be proud of.