NKEM OSUAGWU, in this write-up highlights the implications of operating old aircraft as are prevalent in Nigeria today.
The state of the airline industry in Nigeria is a reflection of the nation’s economic life. Weighed down by a weak currency, limited number of passengers, high cost of aviation fuel, inadequate funding among others, only few indigenous airlines could in the true sense of the word afford to acquire brand new aircraft. This is despite a fleet acquisition policy that placed a ceiling on the age of an aircraft an airline could bring into the country.
That is why this policy introduced by a former Minister of Aviation, Dr. (Mrs.) Kema Chikwe has continued to shape public opinion anytime there is an aircraft accident involving an aging or old aircraft in the Nigerian airspace.
The policy limiting the age of an aircraft an operator could acquire at 22 years, came into being following high profile accidents in the aviation industry as well as allegations that aircraft owners are cutting corners in their maintenance schedules of their already old aircraft.
That is why the issue of an aircraft age operated by indigenous airlines made headlines in the aftermath of the Dana Air’s aircraft accident of June 3, 2012 which occurred about two minutes to landing at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos.
The controversy this has so far generated has put aviation experts to task as they struggle to correct what they believe to be a misinformation that could scare the air travelling public from air travel.
While some experts have criticised this policy as not being realistic and as an aberration to the norms in the air transport sector, others have held that operating aging aircraft has a lot of pitfalls especially for operators in Nigeria who operate under very hostile operating environment.
Though experts have tried to explode this notion, the fact remains that new generation aircraft are more desirable, cheaper to maintain and more environmentally friendly among others.
Though people usually associate an old aircraft with having the tendency to break down, high operating costs, high noise levels, and lower levels of safety, this is, however, contrary to industry view which hold that a properly maintained aircraft can fly for many years.
The industry’s view says: “There is no limit to the service life of an aircraft, “provided necessary inspections are carried out along with timely repair and or replacement of damaged structure”.
Captain Dele Ore, Director, Business Development & Strategy, Aero Consults Ltd. said: “The age of an aircraft does not cause an accident. The age is very important so that you will know what kind of attention you need to give the aircraft. The age does not determine what time you will stop flying it. The 22years age limit for aircraft that fly in Nigeria is ridiculous, the government was ill advised”.
Despite this expert view, the public, still think that aircraft age directly and significantly affects safety. However, in the attempt to educate and change public perception that old aircraft are less safe, experts try to give insight into what an old aircraft is.
Aircraft age is typically measured by the number of total flight hours and cycles flown (one cycle is equal to one takeoff and landing). Experts say the number of cycles flown is usually a more critical measure than calendar age, because it reflects wear and tear and stress that are related to landings and takeoffs and cabin compression and decompression. Therefore, age measured in terms of calendar years only is less informative because it does not reflect an aircraft’s actual use patterns.
To determine the retirement age of an aircraft, the industry focuses on the maintenance and safety requirement as well as the economic life of the aircraft, which has to do with the cost of maintenance. Maintenance checks of aircraft are performed at mandatory scheduled intervals.
Critical parts and components of airframes and engines are limited by hour or by cycle of utilisation and/or calendar time, and must be overhauled or replaced at mandatory intervals.
Some have argued that an airplane might be 20 years old, but many of its systems must have been updated, upgraded, and routinely overhauled or modified. An engine goes through a similar process. All its critical life-limited parts are replaced at mandatory intervals with new and/or overhauled parts.
According to Ore, “The old ones (aircraft), ten years, 15 years, 20 years must have gone through all the teething problems maybe by that time they must have the second set of brand new engines, they must have gone through the required test and come out as if they are coming from the oven, brand new”.
However, Ore believes true age of aircraft could be determined by its “economic life.” An aircraft becomes obsolete if its operating cost exceeds the cost of a newer competing aircraft. That is once an old aircraft becomes too expensive to maintain, it should be retired by the operator.
One of the major cost disadvantages of an older aircraft is generally higher maintenance costs. According to experts older airframes are more susceptible to metal fatigue and cracks because of stress and corrosion.
Thus they require more inspection, more repairs, and more time for maintenance. An older aircraft is more expensive to maintain, and the cost increases with increased use of the aircraft.
New generation aircraft
However, there is a general consensus that new aircraft are more expensive to acquire and less expensive to operate than older ones.
This is because the new aircraft in general have more advanced cockpits, airframes, and engines, and are more fuel-efficient.
According to Bob Thomas, Arik Air, Senior Vice President, the new generation aircraft have been designed in such a way that they do not require huge maintenance associated with the older aircraft.
According to statistics, within the next decade, 50 per cent of new aircraft deliveries will replace the existing ones, while about 6,800 aircraft of current fleet (33 per cent) will be retired in order to optimise high costs resulting from the increasing fuel prices and high maintenance costs.
Also, statistics have shown that with the exception of a few indigenous airlines, the average ages of the aircraft operated by the majority of the carries are between 18 to 22 years and above. This means that within the next decade, unless there is massive fleet renewal programmes, most of the aircraft flying in Nigeria will be regarded as old aircraft and this has a huge implication for maintenance and operating costs.
But this is not to say that indigenous airlines are not making efforts to modernise their fleet. Within the last few years, airlines like Arik Air and Air Nigeria have spent millions of dollars in acquiring new generation aircraft, despite their limited returns on investment.
According to recent reports, Air Nigeria plans to spend about $280 million on the acquisition of four aircraft as part of move to expand its route network to Europe, America and other African countries this year. Also, the domestication of the Cape Town Convention, according to Dr. Harold Demuren, Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), has simplified the process for indigenous airlines to acquire new generation aircraft.
Unfortunately, this enthusiastic piece of information is marred by the realities on ground. The question many have asked is if after making such huge investments, airlines are able to recoup on their investments.
Captain Ndubisi Ekuembu, MD83 Captain with Dana Airways says the domestic airlines are faced with harsh operating environment and fears that some airlines with huge investments in new aircraft might never recoup their investments. He also said the air fares paid in Nigeria is very low and makes it difficult for airlines to actually recoup what they spend in running their operations.
His words; “Our(airlines) overhead here is so high, if the government should step in it will make things easier. We don’t have subsidies on so many things, before we use to have subsidies on Jet A1, but it is no longer there. On spares we use to have subsidy but now we pay huge taxes.
“For instance, a vulture might go inside your engine that is the end of that engine, and to buy a new engine might cost you maybe $2 million, and you buy the engine and you bring it in and they tax you. You have to clear it. You see, the overhead are a lot and that is what actually affects the airlines.”
Though the situation is as it is, the airlines will have to rely on themselves for now to stay in business until such a time government decides to intervene in their situation. That is why it is necessary for them to cut cost in some areas like maintenance and fuel utlilisation among others.
Experts have often maintained that maintenance of aircraft involves huge capital outlay especially when the aircraft has to be taken abroad for checks.
Ore analyses the cost implication involved in maintaining an aircraft abroad as follows; “if the aircraft maintenance bases are located in Kano or Akure, that will be okay. But when you have to take aircraft to Singapore, Malaysia, Turkey, USA and most recently to Adis Ababa. Adis Ababa is not just over there, it is six and a half solid hours away.
And when you do all that, you do not pay in naira you pay in dollars. You then pay for the warehousing of the aircraft, and if they say the aircraft is ready and two days after you have not collected it, then you will have to pay for demurrages, handling of aircraft and also wellbeing of the staff that went with the aircraft. So all these expenses put together, for an aircraft that carries only 150 passengers, it means it will have to carry 250 passengers to break even.”
Also, the management of FirstNation Airways, who recently flew its three operating aircraft abroad for major maintenance, recently alluded to the expenses involved. According to the airline’s Head, Corporate Affairs, Iyare Davidson in a statement to the media, the airline had made arrangement to send its fleet for maintenance with a European Union approved EASA 145 maintenance organisation. Davidson said, “This maintenance will require some upgrades with huge capital outlay”.
The Chairman of Air Nigeria, Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim, while decrying the use of aging aircraft by operators in a recent press event told journalists that older aircraft constitute higher challenges because of the frequency of maintenance.
Despite the challenges involved in airline operations, aircraft owners can choose from either investing in technical maintenance of their older aircraft or replacing them with newer models.
Although airlines’ managements tend to choose different fleet management strategies, there is no gainsaying the fact that the cost of maintenance of aircraft is huge, especially for the indigenous airlines since they have to ferry their aircraft abroad for major checks.