Why my critics oppose aviation reform –Stella Oduah

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Read Time:15 Minute, 36 Second

For her several initiatives to turn around the fortune of the ailing aviation industry, Mrs. Stella Oduah has no doubt, earned herself a good reputation as a proactive  member of President Goodluck Jonathan’s cabinet.  But then, she ran into troubled waters with the recent armored car purchase controversy. As the dusts begin to settle, however, she reiterates her determination to ensure full implementation of her master plan on safety in the sector in line with international best practices in this interview.
Opinions differ about the situation on ground in the aviation sector when you came in as minister in 2011. Some people claim the situation was bad. Others say it was not so bad. What exactly was the situation?
The first thing I did upon my appointment as Minister of Aviation on July 2, 2011, was to take a comprehensive assessment tour of all airports, all agencies and parastatals as well as their facilities and installations across the country. I found that safety and security-critical equipment and installations were obsolete, unserviceable or unavailable.  Airport facilities and services such as air conditioning, toilets, trolleys, elevators, directional signage, power generators, etc were unserviceable, unreliable, unavailable or not user-friendly. Security screening equipment at airports was obsolete and mostly unreliable. Airport fire stations and fire fighting equipment were in poor condition, with fire hydrants unserviceable and firemen and women had gone without proper kits for years. Working condition of staff in airport offices was terrible and unsafe (i.e. leaking roofs, broken floors, no power supply, etc.). Working condition for air traffic controllers in the control towers was poor with serious safety risks for the industry. Several control tower upgrade projects spread across the country, about 154, had been abandoned. Several runways were without lighting. The Aviation Training College in Zaria had lost its ability to train students and lacked adequate equipment and facilities. There was massive leakage of agencies revenue due to manipulation of manual revenue collection processes while there was further loss of agencies’ revenue due to several lopsided so-called ‘concession’ agreements that were skewed against the government and the public interest. We had poor management structures and weak corporate governance frameworks in agencies and parastatals which made accountability difficult, if not impossible. There were extremely unhealthy domestic airlines and a business model that made government interventions wasteful and of no positive effect. Domestic airlines were withholding money that did not belong to them  and failing to pay their bills as and when due. There was apathy by the entire industry to basic customer service responsibilities. Complete neglect of economic regulation was seriously compromising overall safety and proper economic development of the domestic airline sector. We had a general aviation sector that was almost completely unregulated creating a huge safety gap in the industry and an obsolete national aviation policy. There was total lack of planning in the entire industry.
We have at least three major airports namely Lagos, Kano and  Port-Harcourt international airports, which one would have expected the aviation authorities to take adequate care of, not only because of the high traffic that passes through them but also because of what they represent. The symbols of aviation in Nigeria. In what state were they?
Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), the nation’s main gateway, had been left to rot and decay massively to the point that it had become unbefitting of our country. Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport Abuja (NAIA) had a domestic terminal better described as unfit for purpose. The international terminal of Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano (MAKIA) was a very sad tale to tell. Port Harcourt International Airport (PHIA) was by far the worst of all the airports.

So what was the impact of the sorry state of affairs of our aviation infrastructure?
In terms of safety and security, the industry was in retrogression, generally lagging far behind the rest of the world. Economically, the industry had become a net liability to government and the national economy. The industry had established for itself a negative image and thus had become a very poor symbol of our national identity. Several intervention funds injected into the industry resulted in no identifiable, tangible benefits. The country’s aviation industry was clearly behind the rest of the world and Africa in all material aspects. As a result, the industry was not positioned to play the pivotal role that aviation plays in other countries and that it ought to have been playing in Nigeria for years. To cap it all, the aviation industry that we inherited was moving fast in the opposite direction of the rest of the progressive world. It was the perfect example of how not to run a national industry. The situation was depressing and disgraceful to this country.

The picture you have painted looks pretty bad and  discouraging. Any action you would have taken also had the tendency to pit you against players who were benefitting from the rot. What did you do?
We invited IOS Partners, international aviation consultants from the United States who had carried out a World Bank study of the Nigerian aviation industry in 2006, to brief me comprehensively on their findings. We also invited another international consultant to do a study on all the parastatals and agencies under the ministry to clarify the state of their financial affairs. A human resources consultancy was also invited to do a study on the human resources status and practices in all the parastatals and agencies under the ministry. Armed with what we found on the ground, the reports from the three studies commissioned, coupled with my years of business experience, I appointed a competent team of CEOs and DGs for all the parastatals and agencies under the ministry. Together we spent two months brainstorming and developing an aviation master plan and road map to turn around Nigeria’s aviation industry. The Aviation Master Plan and Road Map were approved by Mr. President in January 2012 and  since then all our actions have followed the road map. The transformation of the aviation industry could not begin without making very fundamental changes.
This meant that a number of tough decisions had to be taken, including exiting from various lopsided ‘concessions’ entered into previously. These decisions adversely affected several powerful interests benefitting from the arrangements to the detriment of the industry and the national interest, who have continued to fight and distort public perceptions of the actions which my team and I continue to take to transform the aviation industry.

Aviation authorities have spoken passionately about the reforms in the sector. What do they entail?
Our reforms began with an ambitious aviation master plan – this was the first ever  for the Nigerian aviation industry. The master plan included a road map for institutional changes, infrastructure development, human capacity development, the strengthening of domestic carriers, the establishment of a national carrier, the development of regional hubs and perishable cargo handling facilities, free trade zones and aerotropoli. The paradigm shift required a review of the existing civil aviation policy  resulting in a new and robust National Civil Aviation Policy. The emphasis of the master plan and road map is to reposition Nigeria’s aviation industry as a pivot to the economic growth of Nigeria in line with Mr. President’s transformation agenda.

What is the net effect of the reforms on safety and security in the aviation sector because the impression ultimately created by critics is like there’s nothing to cheer about in the sector still ? Critics are even querying your airport remodelling initiative on the grounds that beautiful airports without crucial aviation facilities amount to nothing….
It is unfair to query the remodelling initiative so far as the terminals are the windows to the airports. And I make bold to say that the initiative is already yielding five brand new terminals viz Lagos-five million passenger capacity now expanded to eight million, Abuja – two million passenger capacity, Port-Harcourt – two million passenger capacity, Kano – one million passenger capacity and Enugu – one million passenger capacity.
All terminals are being remodeled and upgraded, including air conditioning, stand-by power systems, baggage belt systems, lifts, escalators and travelators as well as the general ambience of all our airport terminals.  Now, to the nitty-gritty of the reforms. NIMET’s weather forecasts are now more accurate and timely and meet world standard. Windshear is a major weather hazard that contributed to many aircraft accidents in the past. By means of LLWAS, the occurrence of low level windshear can now be detected and early warning relayed to pilots via the ATC before take -off or landing. With Doppler Weather RADAR, NIMET can now detect and track hazardous weather systems on real-time basis. Calibrated meteorological instruments guarantee reliability and ensure weather data reliability.                  Measurements and observations meet  ICAO standards. Pilots now obtain accurate and reliable weather information prior to every flight out of a Nigerian airport.
We are now able to download, extract, decode and analyse aircraft accident data from the CVR and FDR (Black Boxes) right here in Abuja, thus saving time and money, speeding up the investigation process and upgrading the skills of our aircraft accident investigators.
With the public release of all nine outstanding accident investigation reports from previous years, critical safety information in the form of 36 safety recommendations have been pushed out for implementation by the NCAA to aid in further enhancing the safety net.
The new air traffic management systems deployed under the TRACON project has improved the safety of the Nigerian airspace exponentially.
The TRACON and Safe Tower projects have significantly increased airspace capacity for the industry.
TRACON has helped us to introduce terminal radar control in addition to the en-route phases of flight, resulting in Reduced Separation Minima for aircraft, helping airlines save on flight times and fuel consumption and thus significantly reducing their operational costs. Effective Search and Rescue through real-time radar playback is now available to Nigeria through TRACON.
The National College of Aviation Technology has been reaccredited to train industry professionals in accordance with international standards. Several aircraft and aircraft engines lying unserviceable have been overhauled and back in operation, significantly increasing training capacity for the college.
A new aircraft simulator, helicopter simulator, gas turbine engine simulator     as well as a high tech 360 degree 3-D control tower simulator have been procured and installed in the college for the first time ever.
The college that had been all but grounded and extinct has been revived and is fast playing its rightful role of developing high quality professionals for the country’s aviation industry.
The NCAA is being restructured to become a more proactive safety regulator, by emphasizing surveillance and co-operation with industry players, rather than a passive and reactive regulator.
A new cadre of inspectors has been recruited and are being trained to reflect this focus on effective surveillance.
The NCAA is addressing the shortage of properly qualified flight inspectors by recruiting vastly experienced but recently retired training Captains, to use as external examiners and to beef up its flight inspectorate. With the restructuring of the NCAA, Nigeria will have an effective, proactive aviation safety regulator similar to what is found in advanced countries of the world.We are now fully compliant with ICAO standards for fire fighting and rescue operations  in terms of equipment as well as personal protective clothing for fire men and women.
We have  deployed hi-tech  3-in-1 (liquids, metals and explosive detection) screening equipment at all FAAN’s airports, bringing Nigeria in line with internal standards and best practices.

So your position is that contrary to what critics say, our skies are much safer than they were in the past?
The aviation industry is now safer and more compliant with ICAO standards and international best practices.
Our consistent improvements in safety standards have resulted in ICAO classifying Nigeria  as  above  global  average  in  the   implementation of ICAO’s Standard and Recommended Practices (SARPs).
Given the intervention of the Federal Ministry of Aviation and her parastatals and agencies over the last two years, it is completely false to suggest  that the aviation industry is less safe than it was two years ago.
In fact, the opposite is the case.
The industry is now much safer, much more compliant to ICAO standards and international best practices and is getting better as we continue to execute our road map.
We shall constantly improve on aviation safety standards and implement international best practices as we continue to execute the Aviation Master Plan and Road Map.
The fact is  general aviation is the highest growth area in the industry and growth had been largely unregulated thus far.
We established this year for the first time, a new division in the NCAA, dedicated to the regulation of this industry sector, headed by a seasoned industry professional.
The purpose of this division is to develop and enforce standards, systems, procedures and program plans for general aviation.
Certification of airports was introduced as an added measure by ICAO in 2005 to equalize airport standards globally.
Every country’s CAA was required to adopt the standard and to begin to apply them in certifying airports.
The requirements for certification have been met at all Nigeria’s international airports with respect to airfield maneuvering areas, including navigational and visual aids, airfield markings and signage, fire and rescue services, as well as apron markings, signage and operations.
A prerequisite for certification is the requirement for complete perimeter fencing and operational fencing of an airport. For Nigeria’s airports, which we inherited without these fences, this requires a huge capital outlay.
To  fulfil  the airport fencing requirement, 333 kilometres of concrete perimeter fencing as well as 200 kilometers of wire gauze operational fencing will be needed for an estimated sum of N40.8 billion.
The Federal Ministry of Aviation is currently actively seeking to secure this funding as an urgent and important intervention.
Meanwhile, effective counter measures have beenput in place to ameliorate the associated risks.
MMA, Lagos and NAIA Abuja are scheduled for certification in the first quarter of 2014, in accordance with the ministry’s program.
The fact is Nigeria’s airports are safe. The US Federal Aviation Authority granted Nigeria Category 1 Status. In 2013, ICAO classified Nigeria as above global average in the implementation of ICAO’s standards.

The irony in your position that our skies are much safer than they were is the claim in some quarters that foreign airlines are abandoning Nigeria. Is that true?
The facts are clear: More and more foreign airlines are coming into Nigeria and indicating their interest to come to Nigeria. The airlines that already fly into Nigeria are continuously requesting for additional frequencies. Nigeria is the country in the region with the most attractive airline market size and dynamics. We are building the infrastructure to leverage off these natural advantages.

How do you respond to the allegation that there is vendetta on the part of the aviation authorities against some airlines?
The safety regulator, the NCAA, works with rules and regulations. When they perceive a trend that suggests closer scrutiny, they have a safety responsibility to take necessary actions to promote safety. Every action the NCAA has taken is purely safety-driven and nothing else. Nigerians must have confidence that  NCAA is an industry capable regulator and headed by a 43-year veteran of the industry who is one of the country’s most experienced pilots and aircraft engineers.
The aviation industry is a system. All the parts must act in accordance with the rules as mistakes or deliberate non-compliance is usually costly. Shared responsibility includes all involved-from the Ministry of Aviation, to the service providers, to the professionals, to the aircraft owners and operators, to everybody who flies. If everyone responsibly plays his part, then our industry will grow even safer.

Many people don’t seem to know the economic impact of aviation. You want to educate us?
Nigerian registered airlines directly employ 7,000 people and support through their supply chains a further 33,000 jobs (ground handlers, aviation fuel suppliers, catering service providers, etc). The industry as a whole directly contributes around N110 billion to the Nigerian economy  and indirectly another N67 billion. A further N21 billion comes from the spending of the employees of the industry and their suppliers. Overall, the aviation industry contributes over N200 billion to the Nigerian economy annually and supports more than 70,000 jobs in Nigeria. We project that by the time  the aerotropolis project is completed, additional 80,000 – 100,000 job opportunities would have been created. We project that the aviation industry will contribute an additional N300 billion to the Nigerian economy (GDP) directly and indirectly. This will come from additional investments, construction of the infrastructure and FDI inflows into the industry. Overall, we project that the aviation industry will in future make a net GDP contribution of over N500 billion to the Nigerian economy annually and will support more than 200,000 jobs in Nigeria.

You just spoke about the Aerotropolis project. What is this is about?
The project stemmed out of the basic need to provide a safe, secure, comfortable, dignified and respectable air travel experience for Nigerians and visitors alike.
There is also the critical need to exploit Nigeria’s clear advantages population, economy, geographical position, size and diversity of market.
For more than 30 years, these opportunities were lost until 2011.
Aerotropolis Nigeria is a key element of the National Aviation Transformation Road Map for the industry.
It represents our determination to ensure that our airports impact significantly, not just on the host communities but also on the national economy.
Though at the preliminary stage, we are developing land use plans for Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano to guide the Aerotropolis developments.

Let’s leave the issue of achievements aside, the issue of the BMW cars remain?
Gentlemen, you’re living witnesses to my presentation before the respected House of Representatives Committee that investigated. We followed due process as I’ve maintained.
No car was bought in my name. I specifically asked that the needful be done. The vehicles were on lease. The cars do not belong to the minister.

About Post Author

Anthony-Claret Ifeanyi Onwutalobi

Anthony-Claret is a software Engineer, entrepreneur and the founder of Codewit INC. Mr. Claret publishes and manages the content on Codewit Word News website and associated websites. He's a writer, IT Expert, great administrator, technology enthusiast, social media lover and all around digital guy.
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