A lot has been done in the Nigerian aviation sector in the last 10 months in terms of terminal upgrades, parastatal strengthening, navigational aid infrastructure, entrenchment of safety among others but it is clear that if the industry is to move to the next level more needs to done.
By December, if everything goes well the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) as promised would complete the airfield lighting of Runway 18Left, bringing an end to years of politicizing with the runway that way resurfaced and hurriedly commissioned by a former minister, Babatunde Omotoba.
Even the Federal Government has done something reasonable by removing tariff on aircraft and all its spares, so now it is zero import duties to aircraft and spares and this move has been commended all over the country.
However, despite some of these lofty moves, air fares in the country for a one hour flight continue to soar beyond the reach of the average Nigerian, who would not care one bit if he or she cannot afford the air fare and who wants to get to his/her destination and back fast and do business without the stress of going through the deathtrap roads.
In other climes, not unlike Nigeria, prices for a one hour, sometimes two hours flight is US$100 dollars but in Nigeria the airfare keeps shooting up the roof.
A recent airfare survey shows that the Average fares for the two carriers, Areo, Arik currently flying the Nigerian golden triangle, Lagos-Abuja-Port Harcourt, ranges between N32, 000 and N36, 000 across the counter and their fabled online fares are no cheaper.
Another carrier on scheduled domestic operations IRS may not ply the golden triangle entirely but does ply Lagos-Abuja and its fares are not much better than the other two
Brief history of how prices skyrocketed
Why is this so? And what can be done to make airfares relatively affordable? These are questions that are on the lips of air travellers because in truth, after all the investments in terminals and navigational aids and safety equipment, yet no one flies it will amount to naught.
How did the operations aspect, consisting of the airlines of the aviation industry get this way so fast? Well easy, it was traced back by this correspondent to the Dana air crash in June, 2012.
Like every crash before it, the Dana accident led to passengers being wary of air transport, shunning the airports for the roads and when this happened the other carriers started increasing their fares gradually to meet their profit margin as airlines started scrambling for few passengers.
Then it got worse, as airlines started halting their operations on their own or going out of business entirely.
There were airlines like Associated Air which halted operations immediately after the Dana crash with claims that there wee investors coming to buy into the airline till date no investor, no airline.
The Chanchangi after trying to keep its head above water with just one aircraft and one heck of a skeletal service stopped operations after the order aircraft leased from Jordanian Airways went for checks.
Then there was the case of First Nation Airways which sent its two Airbus A320-400 aircraft for major checks in July stating that the airplanes will be back by September, yet this is November and the aircraft are not back and neither is the airline flying.
Rumor has it that the aircraft lessors have under the Cape Town Convention, taking possession of their aircraft
Then there was the pathetic case of Air Nigeria, whose workers went on so many strikes and shutdowns dating even before the Dana crash of which the NCAA did not ground them giving them a clean bill of health only for them to ground them again for financial insolvency.
That was not the end for the carrier, whose chairman blamed external forces and lack of staff loyalty for the airline’s undoing in August. He said that the airline would bounce back in three months and be better than ever.
Sadly days after the statement, General Electric, GCAS, a leading leasing firm came into the country and took possession of five aircraft belonging to Air Nigeria, and then Egypt Air whose aircraft was leased for the long haul operations also did same.
The Air Nigeria chairman had in the past claimed those aircraft were outright buys and not leased, anyway that not being the point, the airline ceased operations.
With thesefour Dana, Associated, First Nation and Air Nigeria out of the way, remaining airlines Aero, Arik and IRS began to hike their fares as the absence of competition gave them the edge and they became arbitrary with price increasing at their whims.
Even before the crash airlines blamed government for non availability of jet A1, for tarrifs on maintenance spares and other factors they say hinder snooth operations.
Even the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) supposedly in charge of ensuring that fares are not arbirtrarily hiked have not been able to do anything to stop what seem like a cartel action.
How can airfares be made available?
One thing for certain is that the present dispensation of things makes it look like nothing can be done to existing airlines to make them bring down their prices but that in itself may not be true.
This reporter witnessed something extraordinary when Med-View Airline started operations this November.
While other airlines were charging their normal range of above N30, 000 per ticket, the carrier had an online booking of N15, 000 and an across the counter booking of N19, 000 and it was not surprising that the airline’s flight from Abuja was 95 percent full.
This is the power of competition, the power of the more the merrier as prices will on its own crash or market forces will crush it entirely.
The situation with Med-view was likened to what happened before the crash, fares were high but not ridiculously high, meaning that if more credible airline operators were to come in to do business, there is the possibility that the prices may drop some more.
Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah who spoke to our reporter said that the way Federal Government was planning to make air fares reasonable was by creating a level playing field to allow more airlines enter the fray, cause stiff competition and crash the price.
Oduah who spoke to our reporter through the Special Adviser Media, Joe Obi said that more new airlines are coming on board sooner than later and that this will break the seeming monopoly by certain airlines.
She maintained that government is not thrilled about it but is doing something to end it.
On how to make this happen she had earlier said, “If you look at our roadmap, it clearly states on the fifth number of it, it says growing domestic airlines and in growing domestic airlines, we don’t want to go into it without having a proper plan in place, the plan is to make sure we use different things, number one we use our BASA to partner our domestic airlines with international airline operators, so that we can increase their capacity number two is to have proper utilisation of the intervention fund, where the Federal Government will pay direct to the manufacturers and the manufacturers will in turn give aircraft to Nigerian operators”
“We are also working on the National carrier, we are hoping that once we get the final approval, we go through the process, it will be a very transparent process so that every one can participate in that process.”
Managing director of Mish Aviation, Captain Ibrahim Mshelia who spoke recently on this said competition was the way to reduce air fares to something somewhat acceptable.
He said, Allowing more airlines to participate creates competition which is the key to the way forward and development. Eventually, right pricing, standard quality, responsible aviators and businessmen will be identified and be left to man our aviation sector to create the growth and stability needed. “
“I give 100% support to government to open up the opportunity. It will even bring more benefits to the Nigerian public than the 100% duty waiver proposed in the 2013 budget and eventual removal and reduction of fuel levies and rent tariffs generally/respectively.”
“I welcome competition any day because the ticket pricing will be the first to be better determined. Can you imagine going back to 15,000 for a one way ticket to Lagos from Abuja versus what my friend told me he paid the other day on Arik (36,000 naira) for economy ticket from Abuja to Lagos? What else can a Government do better to please its people than cause a price cut for products?”
Government may not be oblivious to some of the facts stated on why airlines went out and may be on their way to do something which is not unconnected to establish a national carrier in public trust under professional management.