Managing Director of Finchglow Group and President of National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), Mr. Bankole Bernard in this interview with select reporters spoke extensively on why foreign carriers hardly partner Nigerian carriers despite the vast opportunities within and why there is need for an independent central data system to enable government plan accurately. And how his school, Lagos Aviation Academy aims to tackle the human capacity deficit in the industry. Nigerianflightdeck was there. Excerpts:
IT is observed that the participation of Nigerians in aviation has been poor over the years, why is this so?
Aviation industry is a very lucrative one. It is lucrative because it meets your minimal needs; it doesn’t have to give you 100 per cent return. In aviation, there is nothing like short term, rather a long term. So, if you are going to succeed in aviation, you need to be ready to stay for a long time. That is why you see the level of participation in Nigeria has been very poor. It is poor because most Nigerian investors cannot stand investments for a long term because they are so worried about tomorrow and that is really discouraging a lot of foreign investors as well because they are weary. They say ‘if you have a lot of billionaires in your country and they are not investing in the sector, something is fundamentally wrong.’ But, they are far from being correct.
What is fundamentally wrong with our industry is because we do not have a central data system. The success of aviation industry lies so much in data capturing. So, we need to have a central data system where all the activities of the aviation industry will be properly captured and based on that, researches can be carried out and good decisions can be made for proper implementation.
The next thing that has been hugely neglected is the downstream sector of the aviation industry. This was equally mentioned to the former Minister of State for Aviation, Sen. Hadi Sirika. When you look at the pyramid, it is very thin at the top and very broad at the base. That is the way business is structured in every industry, which means it is at the base that you are going to find the so called commoners, the downstream of every industry. Any government that doesn’t pay attention to the downstream sector will find it difficult to effect growth and development.
So, it means that if the policies that are being implemented don’t support the downstream sector, the desire growth and development will not be achieved. It means we really need to pay attention to the downstream sector by ensuring there is proper regulation and proper structure of the downstream sector so that every tom, dick and harry don’t just go into the business. When you are going into the business, you understand what that industry is all about before going into it, but when the downstream sector is not regulated, everyone goes into it to mess it up for everybody. That is what needs to be checked.
If the downstream sector of the aviation industry is properly regulated and monitored, and restricting it only for the citizens of the country because that is how it is done everywhere of the world, then, you will find out that the desired growth will happen and the impact will be felt by the citizens and issues of capital flight will not happen. When you talk of capital flight, it is because the downstream sector has been largely neglected.
The other one is the awareness of the good work that is being down in the industry, especially from the angle of the press. Let’s create a better reporting system where we are not constantly tagged as negatives. It is unfortunate the incident of Air Peace, recently, but it has been blown out of proportion by the media. We shouldn’t be messengers of bad news. It is good for us to provide solutions to challenges as well. We need to push the industry forward positively.
You just said that the downstream sector should be left only for the citizens of Nigeria, yet the government is promoting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the sector, is this not contrary to the drive of the government?
When you look at the downstream sector of the aviation industry, we have the travel agencies, ground handlers, catering companies and a few others. One thing about Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) is that they are never concerned about the growth of the downstream sector, they are more interested on return in investments. Some of the foreign investors can come in to partner with business organizations in the downstream sector so that we can create growth and development. But, we should not allow them to just come in and operate; once they do this, it will lead to capital flight. They will take whatever returns on their investments out.
Some of these foreign investors don’t need collateral to get loans, bank guarantees, but in Nigeria, no one is going to give me loan without collateral and bank guarantees. If we want foreign investments, there are other areas that they can invest in. One of the areas is aircraft leasing, Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities, training and others. That is huge investment into our country. We don’t have to go out to do checks on our aircraft anymore. So, why must it be the downstream sector? MRO is not a downstream sector, so, don’t be deceived.
How can discrepancies in data gathering and distribution in the sector be resolved?
There is actually data in Nigerian aviation industry, but how we gather these data is a major challenge and that is why I am saying that there should be a central data system that is going to be managed by an independent body that will coordinate the entire aviation industry. We have the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) coming out with their data, have we been able to say with the number of cars going to the airport, this is how the car park should be like or we just built a car park? We built a car park for instance in 2019, but can’t even meet the needs of 2015. This is so because there is no proper data for somebody to carry out a research that will lead to development of infrastructure in the aviation industry.
What I am proposing is an autonomous central data system so that it can collate data, just as IATA is doing in other countries, but the good thing about the other countries is that they have their own data. Though, we have the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), which gets its information from FAAN, NCAA and NAMA, so, they are not in the control of their information and this defeats the purpose completely.
We need an independent data company for our aviation industry in order to boost effectiveness, rather than having compromised figures. That way, even the investors will now be ready. The organization can be so independent that the government doesn’t need to fund them with any amount of money. Their figures will fund them. NBS covers the entire economy, but we need our own because the entire industry is vital to the growth of this country. We have however not been able to display the viability of our industry to the government, which has made the level of investments low in the sector. So, data will help us a great deal. The onus is really on us.
What is your say on fare imbalance within the region by foreign airline operators?
There is nothing that can be done to address the fare imbalance because in business, everything is about demand and supply and when you look at that route to Togo, as at today, it’s a monopolistic market where you have just ASKY or any other one. So, there is unfair competition on that route. There are still some countries in the West African sub-sahara that you will need to fly out to Paris before you can get there. Why should it be like that? It is because we have not been able to do a linkage and when there is no linkage, there is high level of taxes. So, those are the things that make the prices of tickets to be high, but the moment you are able to increase it, such will disappear.
More so, we lack rail connectivity between Nigeria, Ghana and Togo. We are too close not to have rail connectivity and the moment there is rail connectivity, the airlines that want to fly will know that the passengers have a choice. From London to France, if you don’t go by air, you can go by bus or Euro Star. So, if they know that all these options are there, they will address the fare imbalance.
All the francophone countries in West Africa need Nigeria, but has Nigeria lived up to that expectation of ‘I’m important in the scope of things?’ No. mind you, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) headquarters is in Abuja with the citizens of these countries working there, but to what extent have we been able to move things in ECOWAS to ensure that they move in our favour? We just neglect everything and allowed it to be free for all. The other time, ECOWAS made a statement that people should beware of Nigeria, yet we are housing headquarters of ECOWAS here. Nigeria needs to take its rightful position.
The Ministers of Aviation and Exterior need to work together to bring some level of sanity into the behavours of some of these francophone countries and I can bet you, they will sit tight. So, the onus is on us to use our government and personnel to put a check on these things. It might be a few people that are making these things impossible and it has not got to their governments for them to act.
Some few months ago, you complained about the new platform created by IATA to register members and sell tickets, what has changed since then?
I will say to you that when you speak the truth, some people that have been sleeping will be forced to wake up. It might not go very well with IATA because the association looked at it that it was making a global policy, which it thought was applicable and that it is in-house that we really needed to have policies that will be in tandem with other policies of the world. That led into NCAA changing some things. Even though, it might look rough, they might not like it, but it is making them to wake up. That is why I said life is not all about criticizing, but you also need to proffer solutions. When you proffer solutions, it is good for the entire country.
You recently established aviation training school, why this diversification from a travel agency?
From starting with one office in 2003, we now have a group of companies, including an aviation school. We had the aviation school in order to ensure that we are held accountable by our actions and inaction, by making sure that we push the level of professionalism to the highest level. That way, even the rest of the world will respect what we do because we push professionalism.
We discovered that the knowledge based in the industry is very weak. This is so because education takes a longer gestation period before you can reap reward as an investor or an entrepreneur, but there are quick businesses that you can do as an investor.
That is what led to the setting up of more mushroom schools. To the glory of God today, our aviation school is International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) accredited. Why did we choose to spend money like that? First, we want to push the level of professionalism. Also, we want to be held accountable for our actions and inaction. So, the message we are preaching, before you go out to say this is what you are doing, let it be seen from inside.
What programmes do you run in your aviation schools?
Basically, the school through IATA accreditation, we were able to train on ticketing and reservation and we are able to conduct IATA exams for our students. To the glory of God, we have good students, coming out with distinction from the school. We also train on cabin crew and flight dispatch. Those are the major courses that we are taking right now and we are getting a lot of patronage even from other intending airlines that have approached us to train their personnel.
In ticketing and reservation, we have trained over 150 students. For cabin crew, the exercise took a longer time. So, we didn’t get our license until this year. When it comes to getting NCAA license, it is extremely thorough. We have to give it to them.
However, I want to say it here that there is shortage of manpower in the aviation industry in Nigeria. As an instructor registered in one school, you can’t be an instructor in another school, except you leave that school and move to another one.
Why do you think foreign airlines have consistently overlooked Nigerian airlines in terms of partnerships and others?
I spoke about accountability earlier. Accountability increases the level of professionalism. It is when people are held accountable and they give attention to everything they do in details, it increases the level of professionalism. I want you to know that the foreign carriers have their standards of operations and they probably will not cut corners because they are being supervised by their head office and they equally have corporate governance. If our local airlines are not living up to expectations, it will be difficult to partner with them.
For instance, our airports as they are designed today, they are not designed for us to have connecting flight. So, it is going to be difficult for such an airport to operate as a hub. So, when you do not design the terminal to create an interlining for passengers, how will the international flights going to interline with you because by the time the baggage leaves the international terminal for local, who is going to take responsibility for it? It is going to be tough. So, we need to look into some of our policies; some of our policies are old, we need to revive them.
Do we really have a policy in place in the Nigerian aviation industry?
Yes, we do, but our challenge is continuity. The Bible of any industry is the Act. If we are talking about developmental policy, it is from our Act that we will come up with regulations and developmental plans, based on the lay down Act that we have. Now, whether the Act requires updating is another thing. To the best of my knowledge, the Civil Aviation Act 2006, which is the umbrella body for all our operation is something we ought to have worked on, which has not been done.
What is your assessment of the security apparatus in the Nigerian aviation industry?
Yes, our airports are porous and I am so glad that the new Managing Director of FAAN, Capt. Hamisu Yadudu, swung into action, took responsibility and suspended some officials found culpable in the discharge of their duties. That shows he’s a responsible leader. You can’t stop anybody from reacting the way he wants to react. It is not everybody that is walking on the street of Lagos that is normal. I am sure that FAAN as it is today is already acting on action that will prevent recurrence.
Does Nigeria need a national carrier after the failed attempt?
We need a national carrier; having a national carrier is something that is highly necessary for a country, but how we go about it is what that matters most. There are several ways to handle a national carrier. It is not sufficient enough for us to criticize a policy, it is our responsibility to proffer solutions.
Our tourism sector will not grow and our image will not be properly laundered if we don’t have a national carrier. When you see a British aircraft landed, it reminds you of United Kingdom Government, they are promoting their country. In what ways are we promoting Nigeria? With the total number of pilots that we have in Nigeria that are running helter-skelter, there is going to be a vacuum.
We are sitting on a time bomb, which will explode on all of us because we have those pilots that have gone to school, not gainfully employed, but are just waiting and rusting away. So, if we have a national carrier, it will absorb them; they get trained, they gain mileage and then, we can export our products. I want to agree with you that we didn’t go about the last attempt well, but it doesn’t mean we cannot retrace our steps and get it right.