Lingering hitches associated with the evacuation of Nigerians stranded overseas on account of COVID-19 induced flight ban has brought to the fore flag carrier’s role in discharging national emergencies. But, the Federal Government’s continuous engagement of foreign carriers for the exercise has drawn the ire of experts and other players, writes KELVIN OSA OKUNBOR.
By July 4, the number of Nigerians evacuated home would have risen to 2, 429 following a fresh batch of 300 people expected from South Africa.
According to the Nigeria Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), about 2, 429 Nigerians have been evacuated on account of the global lockdown occasioned by COVID-19 pandemic.
Only yesterday, a fresh batch of 315 were evacuated from London by Air Peace.
The lockdown and resultant closure of airports as well as ban on international flights were part of measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.
Sadly, the containment resulted in many Nigerians getting stranded across the globe.
As the pandemic tore through the world claiming hundreds of thousands of governments of many countries including Nigeria opened the window for essential / evacuation flights for nationals desiring to return to their native lands.
But, there was a caveat: Designated carriers must meet prescribed rules set for such flights. Besides, providing an avenue to facilitate movement for stranded nationals designated national / flag carriers also utilised such flights to discharge emergency duties.
Such opportunity, experts say have been exploited by benefitting airlines to earn revenue as the current COVID-19 pandemic continues to deal debilitating blows on global air transport and allied sectors.
In Nigeria, the window to secure clearance for such flights has remained a subject of intense controversies following preferential treatment allegedly granted foreign carriers for evacuation exercise.
Nigerian carriers, industry experts say, have not been properly treated in the selection of airlines positioned to evacuate Nigerians stranded across the globe.
Of the evacuation exercises carried out, foreign carriers, including Emirates Airlines, British Airways, Air France, Delta Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines , Air India, South African Airways, have airlifted thousands of nationals into and out of Nigeria.
Speaking in separate interviews, Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Aviation, Hon. Nnolim Nnaji; Executive Chairman, Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) Captain Nogie Meggison and President, Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), Dr Gbenga Olowo said the government was not doing enough in protecting Nigerian flag carriers for evacuation flights.
They said some agencies saddled with the task have utilized the window to create business opportunities for foreign carriers.
They said nebulous reasons cited by some foreign countries such as Canada in depriving Nigerian flag carriers the opportunity to discharge such responsibility after endorsement by their country amounted to a disservice.
They said an indigenous carrier such as Air Peace which has demonstrated enough operational capacity and safety standards ought to qualify for such operations.
Experts say carriers that have scaled the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) – the global parameters for airlines’ safety standards should worry less about getting approvals for evacuation flights.
Though Nigeria has no national carrier, designated flag carriers, including
Air Peace, has risen to the occasion following its essential flights to bring in the first batch of medical supplies from Istanbul the Turkish capital.
Besides flying in medical supplies and doctors from China to assist the government in fighting the Corona Virus pandemic the airline has also been involved in returning stranded nationals from India, Israel back to their countries.
However, an attempt by the carrier to air lift Nigerians stranded in Canada a few weeks ago triggered a diplomatic row as it was denied flight clearance by the foreign government on grounds suspected to be predatory practices by a foreign carrier.
Citing safety concerns, the Canadian government shoved the carrier aside for the evacuation flights. Stakeholders in the Nigerian aviation industry have kicked against the continuous use of foreign airlines by the Federal Government for evacuation of the country’s citizens despite local capacity.
They said the development was creating a wrong impression about Nigeria and safety of its carriers.
Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), the umbrella body of indigenous carriers in the country said the continued use of foreign airlines to evacuate Nigerians by the government was contrary to its own directive that only indigenous carriers should be used to do so.
The Executive Chairman of AON, Captain Nogie Meggison, in an interview with aviation correspondents on Monday at the Lagos Airport, said that the onus still lies on government to do the right thing by protecting its own carriers, as COVID-19 fears forced government to bring back stranded Nigerians abroad.
The airline operators stated that almost daily, Emirates evacuates Nigerians from Dubai, revealing that the airlift is being negotiated and advertised by the Nigerian embassy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), thus defying government’s directive that only Nigerian carriers should evacuate Nigerians as many other countries are doing.
He insisted that Nigerian airlines have the capacity to successfully execute such an exercise.
“I have worked in this industry for the past 35 years and we keep saying the same thing and that is why we are not moving forward.
If the government did not give foreign carriers landing permits to evacuate Nigerians from other countries and land in Nigeria, they won’t do that.
If you can’t put your house in order who else will do that for you? We just make laws and policies but we don’t have the political will to carry out what we have said.
“We see these flights coming in everyday and we ask ourselves why? Can you fly into Ghana or other countries if you don’t have landing permits? So we need to first put our house in order for things to work the way we want.
I keep wondering why our airports are still not open for operations. Aviation is a major propeller of the economy. I keep wondering what is delaying the opening of our airspace,” Meggison said.
Also speaking on the issue, a member of Aviation Round Table (ART), a think-tank group in the industry, Engr. Sheri Kyari said that the negation of government directive by a government agency shows lack of synergy in governance and also lack of respect for the central authority.
Kyari emphasised that such actions attract opprobrium to the country.
“This is giving us a very bad image in international community that our airlines are not safe, which is not true. This is a very wrong impression.
Secondly, it’s like connivance against the country to make sure that economically, we are not standing; when what is supposed to be our own and people are ganging up to make sure that we don’t get it. It is a bad one.
“The issue of ‘you do me I do you’ has come out to play, but we are weak in one particular area, which is alliances. This is one of those things that the mega carriers are using against us by denying us the facilities.
Having said that; the major area is for the federal government to step in and put their feet down. Ensure that our carriers are protected,” Kyari said.
The Federal Government made it as a rule before it renewed the evacuation of Nigerians that only indigenous airlines should airlift Nigerians abroad. It took the decision after meetings with the National Assembly.
Speaking on the development, Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Aviation, Hon. Nnolim Nnaji criticised government for not rising in favour of indigenous carriers.
He condemned the government’s continuous engagement of foreign airlines to evacuate Nigerians abroad when there are three Nigerian carriers that have the capacity to undertake such task. He called on government to revert to indigenous carriers for the exercise.
Nnaji also frowned at the engagement of foreign airlines including Ethiopian Airlines, British Airways and Emirates Airlines which have air lifted stranded Nigerians from Dubai, London and U.S by the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Presidential Task Force, (PTF) on COVID-19.
Emirates, on May 06, evacuated 265 Nigerians from Dubai. British Airways on May 08, evacuated over 253 Nigerians from London while Ethiopian Airlines airlifted a batch of Nigerians from the United States.
He said: “The action of those responsible for this is not only a disservice to the local airlines which have done their best to provide patriotic service to Nigerians but equally detrimental to our national pride and dignity.
Nnaji said there are capable Nigerian operators with long haul aircraft that can handle such operations.
According to him, “I am aware that Air Peace has three Boeing 777, Max Air has four Boeing 747 and Azman recently acquired Airbus A340-600 series which can be deployed for these charters.
“Air Peace apart from the operations it did to evacuate Nigerians from South Africa during the xenophobic attacks last year has handled two special charters this COVID 19 period to China for medical evacuation and to Israel to evacuate Israeli nationals out of Nigeria and Max Air has been operating in Hajj without hitches. Why can’t we for once begin to believe in ourselves, why must we look outside for everything?”
AON also condemned the decision by the government to patronise foreign airlines for the evacuation of Nigerians abroad.
The body said the government’s action was disappointing after it promised it would engage two domestic airlines to carry out the evacuation exercise.
He noted that while other countries use their airlines to undertake evacuation flights Nigerian government decided to engage foreign carriers when the capacity of indigenous carriers has not been called to question.
Before the COVID -19 pandemic, Air Peace was already operating flights on the Sharjah / Dubai route in United Arab Emirates as a flag carrier.
Post COVID-19 , the carrier intends to consolidates such operations by expanding flights into expand flights into some of the international routes it was designated by government.
The House of Representatives last month described as unacceptable against further attempt to use foreign airline to evacuate stranded Nigerians from any location.
Irked by the development , the committee summoned agencies directly involved in previous exercise handled by the British Airways, Emirates Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines to get some clarifications.
Nnaji said the committee took the decision following persistent refusal of the Canadian Authorities to grant Air Peace landing rights.
He said the House had in a motion urged Buhari to direct the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Aviation, the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 and other relevant agencies to ensure Nigerian carriers were given the right of first refusal in all circumstances where Nigerians need to be evacuated from other countries.
Investigations by The Nation revealed that Canadian Government had allegedly given preference to Ethiopian Airline for the exercise.
This is despite the fact that the Nigerian carrier offered a $1,134 per passenger fare regime as against $2,500 charged by Ethiopian Airlines.
The Aviation Committee Chairman observed that Canadian Authorities had no reason to deny Air Peace landing right since available records had shown that the airline has the requisite certification and approvals to operate internationally.
He further emphasized that findings have shown that Air Peace is International Air Transport Association’s Safety Oversight Audit, (IOSA) certified which is a major international parameter for measuring airlines’ safety standards.
Aviation pressure and think-tank group, Aviation Round Table (ART) also kicked against move to push the Nigerian carrier aside on the evacuation flight on the grounds of nebulous safety concerns conveyed by the government of Canada.
Its President, Dr Gbenga Olowo, said:” We view the action not only as an unfriendly act but an unwarranted discriminatory and anti-competition acts bordering on avoidable aero politics.”