Captain Musa Nuhu, the director general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) in this interview with ANTHONY AWUNOR, speaks on NCAA autonomy, airlines’ operations, COVID-19 and other issues
How autonomous is the NCAA?
The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has autonomy in terms of regulations but NCAA cannot totally remove itself from the ministry of aviation. The ministry is responsible for policy development for the industry and we implement those policies through our regulations. So, we must have a line of communication and consultations with the ministry; also if you look at the organisational structure of NCAA, we have the minister, the board and then the DG. We cannot totally isolate ourselves from the ministry but l can assure you, in term of implementing regulations and otherwise, NCAA is the only body that is doing that and we are doing that without any interference from the ministry. There are some regulations that without the political support of the ministry, it will be very difficult to implement.
In the past, when aircraft are grounded, big men went over and above the ministry, they even went to the Villa and they have those decisions taken by NCAA reversed, but this time around, it is not so, we implement our regulations irrespective of who is involved.
The political support has made our life easier within our regulations. So anybody that want us to divorce completely from the ministry is not being realistic, it is ministry of aviation. Aviation goes beyond NCAA, we have other public service providers like FAAN, NAMA, NIMET, AIB, NCAT, then the private sector, airline operators, ground handlers all under the ministry; we regulate them, so there has to be some connection between us and the ministry. You cannot say, because we are independent in implementing regulations, we mustn’t have some relationship with the ministry. It happens everywhere in the world. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has some connection with the department of transportation. What is important is for the regulatory body to be able to do it statutory responsibility of effective oversight of the system without interference and that is what we are doing.
What is the economic health of domestic airlines like?
The situation of airlines is a global thing. In the airline industry, the profit margin is very minimal, if you make five percent profit margin in the business, you are considered to have done excellently well. However, with the COVID-19 and the difficulties, airlines financial positions are not the best, it is a global phenomenon and there are so many other issues that affect the financial health of airlines that is neither in the control of the ministry of aviation nor in the control of the civil aviation regulatory body.
For instance, the provision of foreign exchange, doesn’t come from us. If a country’s foreign earning goes down, the central bank prioritises, and you can understand due to the lack of maintenance organisations in Nigeria, pilot recurrent training institutions in Nigeria, they have to go outside to do these and that entails a lot of foreign currencies. So it is not easy. Jet A1 is also a major factor, airlines have been having difficulties with that. Sometime we see induced scarcity and high prices, so there are factors that affect the health of the airlines that are not in our direct control. The ministry has tried, it went to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) when this government came on board, at that time, Nigeria owed foreign airlines about $600 million in arrears, the minister through consultations was able to get that off our back and all the foreign airlines were paid. We visited the NNPC to see what kind of arrangement can be made for the production of Jet A1. Another challenge is high interest rates, when airlines go borrowing at a very high interest rates which we know is very high in Nigeria, it affects their profit margin. If my profit margin is 5per cent, explain to me if l take a loan at 20 per cent, how I can break even and pay them and make profit. These are the micro and macro factors that affect the health of the airlines.
We try through our economic regulations to do the financial audits of the airlines and advise them where we see areas of economic difficulties and see how they can be tackled. One of the things we are doing is that we want to really strengthen the function of the economic regulation through more training of the staff of the directorate. As you are aware, we are having some restructuring going on, it is to reposition the regulatory body to be able to carry out its responsibilities in a more effective and efficient manner.
Is there any plan to merge NCAA with any other agency?
I read the report in the papers the same way you did, nobody has informed me of any merger. l have asked from the ministry and there have been no confirmation. I understand this is an old report done over 10 years ago, somebody just sat down and brought it out. I am not aware of any merger between NCAA and any agency and I cannot comment on what seems to me an unofficial matter, and by the way, in the US, FAA is the regulatory body and it runs the air traffic services which is the equivalent of NAMA. So it depends on how you run it. I am not saying we are going to do it here because I don’t have anything official, but there is this misunderstanding that there is something like that. FAA has a specific structure designed in their own case to ensure that there is no conflict of interest. I am not aware of any merger in Nigeria because I have not been given any document officially.
What can you say about the ill treatment of Nigerian airlines abroad?
The advice I will give the airlines is that, if you are going to another country to negotiate your services, you should involve the regulatory body, the ministry of aviation and also your embassy in that country. If you as a private organisation go and negotiate with a government entity that is trying to protect its own airlines, you are going to run into difficulties. However, when you involve the ministry of aviation officials, NCAA officials and embassy officials, the country knows that if they make things difficult for our airlines, we will apply the same reciprocity measures to their airlines, so it make a big difference.
A lot of airlines go and do the deal themselves. They should involve us, carry us along and brief us because we are here to help our airlines grow both domestically, regionally and internationally. I hear them talking about aeropolitics; yes, an airline from Nigeria want to go compete with an airline of another country on their route, of course they will make it difficult for you but when you carry NCAA officials along, it makes a difference. If you make unreasonable demand on my airlines, I will apply the same to your airlines coming into my country, so it is to their benefits for every country to come out with good terms for all the airlines. When airlines are going to foreign countries to negotiate, inform us so that we will sit down with you, guide you, send representatives there with you to negotiate with these foreign countries. If the foreign countries have airlines coming to Nigeria and they give us unfair charges to our airlines, we will apply the same reciprocal charges to their own coming into Nigeria too. When we have BASA, there should be fairness on both sides; if there are challenges, they should inform us but if they are going for the first time, they should equally involve us so that we sit down, strategise and send people there to negotiate.
How has COVID-19 affected your plans for the industry?
The discussion I had during the meeting after taking over from the acting DG, was COVID-19. By then it was not yet declared a pandemic but we could see the trend coming. So we had started putting measures in place. Firstly, we looked at how we are going to run the NCAA as an organisation and business continuity plans in place; how our staff will be working with the development to ensure that whatever happens, we will have people that will be running the organisation regardless of the COVID-19 challenge. We ensured we have somebody who will step in; we prepared to reduce the workforce coming, a lot of them will stay at home and we have what we determine is enough that will run the organisation. That was even when the government came out with the directives and we were already working on that. Basically at that time, it was the issue of survival, whatever plans has to be put in place, because whatever plans you have, if you don’t survive, your plan are of no use. First of all, we have to survive, ensure the organisation survives, and to put measures for the industry to survive, it certainly delayed our plans but now with the successful resumption of domestic flight and we have not had a significant spike and contamination cases. All the plans have been delayed but we have successfully resumed the domestic operations, perhaps one or two minor hitches here and there, nothing significant, and I know you will all agree with me so far so good. Again, the response from the public complying with the protocols have been excellent. We started the international flight operations, with time we are going to increase the number of flight coming in as things stabilises. We identified hitches that were rectified and we hope things will get much better going forward. So part of the plans we had is repositioning the regulatory body to be more resilient and a body that is flexible to react to changing situations. Part of the restructuring we have had is part of this process and in the coming months, we will see the organisation in a good position to deal with challenges and the emerging challenges. As you are all aware, the COVID-19 has changed the global industry, the rapid changes in technology is also changing the industry, not only aviation but also the ways businesses are conducted. We have to reposition ourselves to fit into that so that we can really effectively conduct our regulatory responsibilities.
Has any country barred from the Nigerian airspace approached you for negotiation?
I am not aware of any approach by any of these foreign countries. They might have done it, it is possible, I am not saying they have done it, I am just speculating because they could have contacted the ministry of foreign affairs and they might also contact PTF. I am not aware of any but I have heard a lot of complains. However, no country has approached us for this.
What is your reaction to the Scrapping of Consumer Protection Directorate in NCAA?
I think there is a misunderstanding. Consumer Protection has not been scrapped. It was just downgraded from a full directorate to a unit under the Directorate of Air Transport Regulation (DATR) which is what it used to be. Consumer protection exists in full with all the functions it has. We still have consumer protection, it has never been scrapped. If you go to the airport, you will still the staff from the unit carrying out their jobs without any reduction in their scope.