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In aviation safety audit, no country fails or passes – DG NCAA

NCAA moves to ensure safety amid concerns over contaminated fuel

Musa Nuhu is the director general of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). In this interview with Ifeoma Okeke-Korieocha, he speaks on the recently concluded International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) audit. He explains that against reports that Nigeria failed the audit, the country did not fail but had some gaps which it needs to address and it would surely address to ensure safety.

What do you say about Abuja and Lagos as the most expensive airports in the world with about 27 revenue charges imposed on airlines?

I think the Ministry of Aviation and Aerospace Development established a committee to look at these multitudes of revenues to see how they can be streamlined. But what we need to understand is that a lot of these charges are not from the aviation agencies, but are more in the cargo area. All sorts of people, some are illegally making these charges. So, aviation will start, at least we will consolidate and see where we can streamline and merge those charges and see what can be done. But there are a lot of people and lots of charges have nothing to do with aviation aeronautical charges. It is other organisations that are in the airport that put these charges. But, sometimes as Nigerians, we need to all sit down as a team and see the damage we are doing to our country.

Like in Lagos, there are so many charges, you want to export your cargo, there are so many charges. By the time you pay those charges, your products are not even competitive anymore. That is why you see a lot of planes bringing in cargo, and they leave empty out of Nigeria, because exports are not viable and lots of these are charged by plethora of these agencies. It is really hurting us.

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When Festus Keyamo, the minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development, toured the Lagos airport, he said he is going to recognise the Civil Aviation Act 2022 that gives NCAA autonomy on air safety. Some claimed that NCAA autonomy is eroded by the ministry, how do you intend to change this?

That is not my experience as the DG of NCAA. I cannot speak on what happened before me and we have to determine and understand the autonomy of the NCAA. The NCAA is a government organization; the NCAA cannot exist in the absence of government. Autonomy of NCAA is on its regulatory functions, our safety regulatory function that is where we have our autonomy. But there are other government regulations, financial regulations and all that the NCAA must comply with. The NCAA cannot exist on its own and we say nobody in government should talk to us. There is no civil aviation authority like that anywhere in the world.

But, when we take safety decisions, like grounding of an Airline X, then there is intervention that we should reverse that action, then that is interference with the regulatory function. My own experience since I became the DG, I have not experienced that even once. And like the new minister has said, he will respect that. And the first meeting I had with him, he said ‘I am a lawyer, I have gone through the Civil Aviation Act. NCAA is a very powerful organisation and has a very powerful DG.’ But, if you don’t use power properly, you will do more damage than fixing things. So, you have to be very careful that you don’t get carried away. And what is the purpose of the NCAA? To promote the aviation industry, basically that is what it is. So, we work with all stakeholders. We have grounded a few airlines when we believed that safety was going to be compromised, we just have to take action.

Do you think Nigerian airlines are making profit?

Nigerian airlines are operating in a very difficult environment. An airline cannot operate in isolation of the economy it is operating in and the Nigerian economy is in very difficult times. The cost of financing is 25 per cent. That is killing to start with. You take a loan and you are paying 25 per cent of whatever you make to the bank. You are not talking of your expenses, your cost, your current and long-term liabilities. Quite a few of them are in financial strait and some are okay. So, that is the way it is. It is a very difficult environment for the airlines and we also do sincerely sympathise with them and we will try and see where we have flexibility to make life easy for them.

Like the issue of insurance, the insurance is from Lloyds of London, from another country, while it requires a huge amount of foreign exchange. Normally, insurance they say is for one year, but we know an airline that has 20, 30 aircraft like Air Peace for it to pay insurance is a huge task, that is why we say pay quarterly, at least to reduce the financial burden, especially on the requirement of getting foreign exchange at a time.

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So, we try to assist the airlines in that area, and those who have debts, we reach an agreement with them. If I have N1 billion with you, I am not asking you to pay that N1 billion to me, because if I do that, I am going to kill your business. So, we reach a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and they pay an amount that will not cripple their operation. But also, they have to pay a reasonable amount to clear those outstanding debts. Those are the areas we have flexibility with the industry.

One major area of focus of this summit, is the issue of Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), and when you look at the presentation of African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC), they talk about the fact that we have only been able to achieve 11th and 5th freedom since we started this implementation. What are some of the challenges that you have seen in Africa in the effective implementation of the policy?

Well, there are quite a few challenges about SAATM. Since Adefunke Adeyemi, the new secretary general of Nigeria became AFCAC sec. gen. She has done excellently well. She is really promoting SAATM and we can see changes coming. Maybe slowly, but it is a start, it is coming. To me, one or two of the main issues we have with SAATM is that we compare ourselves with Europe, but Europe has one regulatory body, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). In Africa we have 24 different regulatory bodies with 24 different regulations. So, this makes it difficult, until we African learn to have a single regulatory body like EASA.

Then if you are coming from a country with a requirement and you come to Nigeria, I start giving you another requirement that is a very difficult thing to do. And in Europe, they have one political organisation, the European Commission. They make their policies and it is applicable to all. But, here everybody does his own policies and go their own way. Honestly, unless we find a way to resolve these issues, even if SAATM is implemented, it is not going to achieve its potential.

As I said during my speech, we have started informally talking to some DGs of some four, five countries to see how we can look at our regulations to have some kind of harmonisation between these countries. Do you know what it does if you have harmonization? We will do training together, there are many things we can do together.

If an airline is coming from Country A to Country B and we have harmonisation, it is like a local flight. So, to me that is the way to go. We want to start, and I hope we are able to hit the ground on that and when other countries see that it is succeeding, everybody will want to join the band.

Some weeks ago, the sector was audited by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), can you let us know what transpired? Unfortunately, some said Nigeria failed. During the audit, there are some open items that are given time to close. What do you have to say on the score of Nigeria and how do you think all those open items can be closed?

They audited Nigeria and we got 70 per cent, which is below the global average, but we moved up and we did not get any significant security concerns. We met the authority and the industry in a very difficult time, and I keep saying this, what we are doing, we are not developing the system for the sake of passing an audit. We are developing the system for sustainability, to function the way it is supposed to function, audit or no audit.

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We are not here to pass an audit. I am not here to make ICAO happy while my people are suffering. It is good to get a high score, but I don’t want us to get 90 per cent, then you come back three months later and we have gone back to our old habits.

So, in ICAO, there is no pass or fail. There is a target, if you don’t get the target, ICAO will send you a report with the protocol questions. And you use that, they give you three months to develop an action plan and close some of those gaps and send it back to them. There are a couple of areas we didn’t do very well in Nigeria and one of the areas is the certification of airports. It is very critical; we lost 10 points or more in the area of certification of airports. And to be honest, we refused to certify the airports, because the airports did not meet the requirement for certification. If we had done certification and then ICAO came and saw that they did not meet the requirement, then our credibility goes to zero and we would have failed woefully and we would have all sorts of significant safety concerns. The reputation of Nigeria will be damaged, the Nigerian airlines and everybody will suffer for that.

But to be honest, in the last one or two months, with the current Managing Director of FAAN, we have made progress. But to be honest, it came too late for us to do certification before the audit. We have all agreed, going forward we are going to do the certification. And there is nothing like this organization did well and that organization didn’t. It is all wrong, it is Nigeria. When you go to ICAO, they are not going to tell you the NCAA did 100 per cent, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) did 50 per cent, NAMA did 60 percent, there is nothing like that. It is Nigeria they are going to put there and we must collaborate and work together.

Different sections in the NCAA got different scores. Airworthiness got 94 percent. They went from 90 to 94, that is almost perfect. Then we had the airport, because of lack of certification, most had 56 per cent. Then we have air navigation services, we had lots of problems both on the NCAA and Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) sides. So it is those areas that really dragged us down.

Operation was at 52 per cent, they went up about 11 points. Still a bit poor, but at least, the direction is in the right trajectory. And we will continue working and work has started already. We are not even waiting for the ICAO report, we know where we have issues and the work has started. And by the time we finish airport certification and other things, there is what they call ICAO Coordinated Validation Mission (ICVM).

After you have done your audit and you think you are okay, you invite ICAO but this time around you pay for it. They will come and look at you to validate all the actions you have said you have done and then your score goes through the roof. And I am sure if we work collaboratively with the support of the press, the ministry, the entire industry, believe me, our scores will shoot through the air. At least the audit has shown us where we are. If we were deceiving ourselves or we were blinded by it, now it is quite obvious and we will work in resolving those areas.

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What do you say about the proliferation of state-owned airports and the role of the NCAA in this?

There are two processes of building airports; first is the policy side, which the ministry gives. So, if you want to build an airport, you will write to the Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development. The ministry will form a committee, comprising the Aerodrome department of the ministry, NCAA will be part of it, the FAAN and NAMA will go through the feasibility study of the airport. They go visit the site, and initially these things are perfect.

They have a good business case, everything is okay. The committee comes back, and the minister will recommend, and give approval. It comes to NCAA, we start building the airport, it gets to 70 per cent and then everything fritters. There are quite a few airports like I told you that are built and they have not even met the requirements, so much money has been spent, but they have not reached the minimum requirement.

And the unfortunate part that people don’t see is that many times, these State governments handover the airports to FAAN. NCAA has to have more aerodrome inspectors. It is a burden on me. So, we must inspect it and make sure it is okay. NAMA has to employ and train more air traffic controllers. These are things people don’t see; it is a burden on us.

And these airports do not even generate money; there are airports that have one or two flights a week. Some are even executive flights. Honestly, we must collectively find a way to deal with that because for me, even as a CAA it is putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on us.