As Nigerian airlines expand their fleet in preparation for international flights, they have expressed concerns on what they described as ‘one-sided’ Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASA).
They complained about countries offering them only second-tier airports, thereby limiting their access to as many passengers as possible.
Air Peace, Ibom Air, ValueJet and United Nigeria Airlines have in recent times disclosed plans to acquire aircraft to boost their operations outside Nigeria by commencing regional and international flights.
However, BusinessDay’s findings show that some of the airlines have written to their desired countries about their plans to commence flight operations, but were offered second-tier airports as against their desire to operate busy airports that can help them compete favourable with big airlines.
The airlines who spoke to BusinessDay declined to disclose the names of the countries, but said they were still in talks with them to see how the conditions would be reviewed, especially as the BASA agreement states 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 most busiest airports, but Nigerian airlines have been deprived of reciprocating the traffic.
George Uriesi, chief operating officer at 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.
He said: “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 aeropolitics. 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 aeropolitics correctly, much will change. Why should airlines be carrying passengers from Abuja to Port Harcouhrt 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.”
Ibrahim Mshelia, owner of West Link Airlines Nigeria and Mish Aviation Flying School, said the development would stall Nigerian airlines’ desire to fly into another country because if they are not going to competitive places, it would affect their passenger load factor and they will be running at a loss.
He said: “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 about some aeropolitics being meted to Nigerian airlines. BASA, as practised 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 are not for public consumption. Nigeria has its own foreign politics and that is reciprocity. So reciprocate what they do to you.”
In 2021, a 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.
But the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority described Air Peace’s request for three slots instead of the 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 had available slots.
Before then, 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.
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 the slots it had leased from Lufthansa’s LHAG.DE British unit bmi at London’s Heathrow airport were about to expire and it was then 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 the UK, while British Airways and other UK-based airlines that operate into Nigeria access Lagos and Abuja airports.
In 2018, the management of Air Peace decried the loss of over N6 billion on its West Coast routes.
Allen Onyema, chairman of Air Peace, attributed the huge loss to aeropolitics on the continent, which it said was aimed at frustrating its operations on the routes it flew into on the continent.
He said part of the losses 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 were 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 the Lagos-London route. But the carrier could only operate on the Lagos-Dubai route for more than three months. Aeropolitics in Europe and the 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, 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 the treatment being meted on Nigerian airlines is with the aviation ministry and the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority.
He said: “Sometimes, the relationship in commercial aviation is reciprocity: you give 10, you get 10, not nine or 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.”
But Sindy Foster, principal managing partner at Avaero Capital Partners, told BusinessDay that ‘second-tier airports’ in countries with good surface connectivity (rail, road, trains, etc), are often preferred because the lower cost airports are often more profitable for airlines and some are preferred by passengers due to cost, location or proximity from their homes.
She said: “From 29th August, 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.
“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.”