As Nigerian airlines expand fleet in preparation for international flights, they have expressed concerns on what they describe as ‘one sided’ Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASA) which has seen countries denying them their choice airports and offering them second tier airports, thereby limiting their access to as much passengers as possible.
Air Peace, Ibom Air, Value Jet and United Nigeria Airlines have in recent times disclosed plans to commence regional and international flights with plans to acquire aircraft to boost their operations outside Nigeria.
However BusinessDay’s findings show that some of the airlines which have in recent times written to their desired countries of their plans to commence flight operations have been greeted with unfavourable conditions, one of which is offering them second tier airports against their desire to operate busy airports that could help them compete favourable with big airlines.
The airlines, who are yet to disclose countries refusing them access to ‘juicy’ airports, say they are still in talks with the countries to see how these conditions would be reviewed, especially as BASA agreement insists that countries should reciprocate traffic.
BASA which is a reciprocity agreement that provides for civil aviation certifications to be shared between two countries has seen international airlines operate flights from Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt airports, which are Nigeria’s busiest airports but Nigerian airlines have been deprived of receiving equal traffic as a result their absence on international routes.
However, as Nigerian airlines gear up to fly to other countries, with Air Peace already operating several international flights, they have alleged the BASA agreements has become one sided as countries either restrict them on flight frequencies or airport choices.
George Uriesi, Chief Operating Officer, Ibom Air said if foreign airlines want to keep coming to Lagos airport, then they should give Nigerian airlines access to Heathrow airport where passengers can connect to its interline partners.
“Don’t force us to go to another airport, while having unlimited rights into Lagos. We will send you to our second tier airports just as you do to us. Funny thing is that when you put your foot down, the ‘scarce’ slots at Heathrow appear. It’s aero politics. The slots are there and ‘hidden’ under convoluted ‘grandfather’ arrangements.
“Our market is our leverage. If you want it that badly, then give something we want from you in return. When Nigeria begins to play this access rights aero politics correctly, much will change. Why should airlines be carrying passengers from Abuja to Port Harcourt and back, at the expense of domestic airlines? It’s hard to believe, but it’s happening still. And more and more of it will continue to happen if we sit still and watch this go on forever,” Uriesi said.
Ibrahim Mshelia, owner of West Link Airlines Nigeria and Mish Aviation Flying School who confirmed the development told BusinessDay that this development will stall Nigerian airlines’ desire to fly into another country because if they are not going to go into competitive places, it will affect their passenger load factor and they will be running at a loss.
“No one wants to start a business that you know from the beginning you will be running at a loss. Medview and Air Peace complained of some aero politics being meted to Nigerian airlines. BASA as practiced in Nigeria is not fair. The government has to begin to apply reciprocity.
“BASA agreement is a trade agreement and both sides must honour it. If the other side is playing tricks with it, you equally play your own tricks. Some of the tricks you will play is not for the public consumption. Nigeria has its own foreign politics and that is reciprocity. So reciprocate what they do to you,” Mshelia said.
In 2021, Nigerian airline, Air Peace, accused the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of denying it requested slots into Sharja Airport, in the Middle-East country, while Emirates operated more than 21 weekly frequencies into Nigeria.
However, the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority had described Air Peace’s request for three slots instead of one it was given at the country’s second busiest airport, Sharja Airport, as “unreasonable”. It advised the airline to make up for the shortfall with flights to any other airports in the country that has available slots.
Before this, Dubai-based Emirates suspended all its flights to Abuja and Lagos after the Nigerian government retaliated against the UAE’s treatment of Air Peace and cut Emirate’s slots from 21 to one.
The matter threatened diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Recall also that in 2012, Arik Air suspended its daily flights between Abuja and London because it was being prevented from getting arrival and departure slots at UK airports.
Arik Air said slots it had leased from Lufthansa’s LHAG.DE British unit bmi at London’s Heathrow airport were about to expire and it was now facing unspecified ‘restrictions’.
Landing slots at Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports, are popular and over-subscribed and Nigerian airlines have always been told to use other airports in UK, while British Airways and other UK based airlines that operate into Nigeria access Lagos and Abuja airports.
Sometime in 2018, the management of Air Peace decried the loss of over N6bn on its West Coast routes.
Allen Onyema, the Chairman of Air Peace had attributed the huge loss to aero politics on the continent, which was aimed at frustrating its operations on the routes it flies into on the continent.
Part of the losses he said were due to high charges, over-flier charges and others imposed on the nation’s carriers by some of the agencies on the West Coast, while their airlines operating into Nigeria are charged a little by the country’s government agencies in the industry.
Med-View Airline in November 2017 commenced direct flight operations between Lagos and Dubai, with its Boeing 767300 ER.
The airline had in November 2016 started Lagos- London route. But, the carrier could only operate on the Lagos-Dubai route for more than three months. Aero politics in Europe and Middle East limited the airline.
First, its leased aircraft B767 on the Lagos-London route was blacklisted in the European sky by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), while its lessor and some government officials allegedly connived to frustrate its operations in Dubai and London.
John Ojikutu, security expert and former military commandant at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos told BusinessDay that the solution to treatment being meted on Nigerian airlines is with those authorities in the management of the commercial Aviation responsible for allocation of airports to foreign airlines and these are the aviation ministry and the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority.
“Sometimes, the relationship in commercial aviation is reciprocity: you give ten you get ten not nine nor five. If you demand for more than you give, there is always payment for the excesses you take.
“To cut the problem short I have advocated that no foreign airline should go to Lagos and Abuja but to Lagos or Abuja and to any other airport in the alternative geographical location and that could be decided for the airline by the responsible authorities,” he said.
But Sindy Foster, principal managing partner, Avaero Capital Partners told BusinessDay that ‘second tier airports’ in countries with good surface connectivity (rail, road, trams,etc), are preferred by passengers due to cost, location or proximity from their homes and because the lower costs are often more profitable for airlines.
“From August 29, every car entering or leaving Heathrow needs to pay an additional £12.50 per day (excl. stationary days), so costs for passengers will increase. Meaning, passengers will look more into alternative airports,” Forster said.
“Airlines such as EasyJet and RyanAir have made profitable business plans based on secondary or ‘second tier airports’. In fact we should adopt a system of second tier airports in Nigeria with reduced costs for airlines and passengers.”
She said while she always agreed that agree that foreign airlines absolutely should not be carrying passengers from Abuja to Port Harcourt or Lagos to Port Harcourt, this is not likely to be reciprocated anywhere. “This is cabotage. But I don’t think we have a specific cabotage law for aviation. They do for marine. Both things should be looked at,” she added.