Minister of Aviation, Mrs. Fidelia Njeze may have started out in the industry as a mediator of debts between industry parastatals and airlines but the industry months after she assumed office has not felt her impact especially as she has not been forth-coming with solving the industry’s problems.
Barely hours after she was sworn-in, Njeze was confronted with her first challenge, an impending strike among airlines who were protesting the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) cash and carry Terminal Navigational Charges.
She waded in and the professionalism at which she negotiated and all parties came into an agreement was amazing and with that thought industry watchers were enthusiastic that there was a minister that would at least be interested in the affairs of the industry.
However, it would also seem that the minister has waded into one too many crises, especially at the detriment of service providers in the industry, that are being owed huge amounts that could aid in turning the dying sector around.
A fortnight ago, there was fresh allegation that the minister was behind stopping the partial grounding of Arik Air, Overland Airways, Dana and IRS by a combine team of officials of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency(NAMA) and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority(NCAA) for not remitting five per cent Ticket Sales Charge(TSC) amounting to over N5 billion .
The partial grounding of the affected airlines was part of efforts by the regulators to propel airlines to pay their huge sum they collected on behalf of the agencies, which is factored into the ticket money purchased by passengers.
The intervention by the minister, according to industry watchers, is not good for the industry because passengers pay to travel on these airlines and the airlines are to collect Passenger Service Charge (PSC) from passengers in trust of the agencies.
Now, agencies are groaning in debt and there is also the ricochet effect that airlines not paying their debts may lead to a situation where air safety is compromised. What will happen if these agencies are not able to maintain their equipment as result of lack of money? A situation where airlines indebted to aviation agencies rush to the minister of aviation to intervene anytime they are asked to pay back their debts gives room to the airlines to perpetually owe agencies.
Opinions have also started to change as it has been noticed that Mrs. Njeze, despite her tough talk when she assumed office and went for the routine tour like all other ministers before her, has not delivered on any of the promises she made.
She has also made it a habit to deftly avoid programs organised in the industry always looking for last minute replacements among the agency chief executives giving people the impression that industry matters are the least of her worries.
Daily Champion was at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) last Thursday when the Minister arrived at about 11am learnt from credible sources that Mrs. Njeze, who came into the state, had to move through the airside to the international airport so as to travel with one of the foreign airlines after going to check out one of the new offices at the international.
Industry watchers are saying since she assumed office in April there have been four or five programs from the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE) conference, to the Airport Summit, to the unveiling of the Approved Training Organisation License of Aero Consult to the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) Servicom program, all of which she has avoided.
This is coupled with the lackadaisical attitude at which she goes about her so called change in the industry.
After Njeze embarked on her first tour of operational facilities and infrastructure at both the domestic and international wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA), Lagos , with heads of aviation agencies on her entourage, she spoke passionately about the change she planned to put in the industry.
She told journalists that the aviation industry is grappling with a myriad of challenges not limited to dearth of decaying operational infrastructure, even as she affirmed that the industry has not overcome its many problems.
She declared that the problems bedeviling the industry will addressed both in short, medium and long terms basis, if the managers of the industry gets their priorities right.
The problems, the minister said have not been adequately addressed and that government is looking at critical areas, which will make the provision of aviation services customer centric, with emphasis on passenger safety and comfort.
She said plans are in top gear to improve the quality of aviation services and that government is poised to address decaying infrastructure at the airports, especially at the terminal building with timeline set for fixing epileptic cooling system at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos.
She also was not comfortable with the state of the toilets, which could impact on passenger comfort.
Njeze also said that in the next three months the air field lighting system attached to the domestic runway; 18 left of the Lagos airport will be completed and the cooling system fixed.
“The problems of the aviation industry are still there. They have not been addressed adequately. Not that progress has not been made, which has only be achieved in the area of safety and security. We are now going to face areas that are critical, areas that will make our services adequate and complete, which is the area of comfort, or improving the quality of services within the terminal section, especially the cooling system”
As if the above promise was not enough, she added, “We are going to prioritize, within a short while, we are going to roll out both a short, medium and long term plans. The problems will not be fixed within a week, but our short term priority is the air conditioning system, which a facility that gives passengers basic comfort.
We will then address the toilet facilities that have for long decayed, within the next two months; passengers will notice a lot of changes within the airport terminals”
The minister, further there were plans to overhaul other operational facilities such as the Lagos runway, which has not been fitted with air field lighting since, assured that in the next few months the project completion will be fast tracked.
She said, “The contract for that has already been awarded, if you go there now, you will notice that work is on going, within the next three months, the air field lighting will be fixed. And that will reduce the stress that the pilots go through trying to taxi from the domestic to the international wing to take off after six o’clock in the evening”
The minister did not only make promises only on facilities, but she raised the hopes of airline operators as regards bird strike, which has been given operators sleepless nights. “We will install more bird scaring device, we have in place, but the ones we have are not adequate, we need more so that we control the bird within our capability, these are things one cannot exert control over hundred per cent. Because the birds are highly mobile, they fly, there is an extent you can control them”
Now, months after the industry is still in a standstill as 100 per cent of the problems she met on board are still the complaints making rounds, just last week there was a conference at the international airport and all the cooling systems were not working, power as usual was epileptic and even the 30 foreigners brought in by the Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta were making fun of the situation while fanning themselves.
What about the air field lightening which she promised to complete in three months? Well despite her misinformation that the contractors were already on site, absolutely nothing was happening there as airlines from six o’clock or anytime it rains use the international runway for safety sake.
For a country fighting to be a hub in West Africa and have the highest number of regional flights, facilities at its domestic operations is sadly inept.
The non installation of the air field lightening is also making the cost of operations of the airlines whose aircraft have to taxi from the international runway to the domestic runway high.
There is also the issue of the N500 Billion fund from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), as of yet the aviation minister who promised the airline operators of Nigeria that she would go to CBN office and make enquiries has not come up with any.
It would not be surprising if she does not know the modalities and criteria for sharing collecting the loan.
In truth, the Minister needs to call herself to order as she now has barely nine months to prove to Nigerians, that her appointment is not just meant as talk shop and jobs for the boys but that she can actually deliver on, if not all, some of her promises.