‘Why merger of airlines will not work in local sector

Aviation trainer and Chief Executive Officer of West Link Airlines, Capt. Ibrahim Mshelia, in this interview with WOLE OYEBADE, looks at the challenges facing private local operators, prospects of collaboration for survival and why Nigeria Airways died.

A lot has been said about the defunct Nigeria Airways and its collapse. Some said it failed due to mismanagement, others blamed workers. What is your view?
First and foremost, I will talk about the airline’s structure before talking about the staff and management. The truth is that Nigeria Airways was not created for profitability with the way it ran and the structure it had. The airline had a yearly budget. But how can the airline have a yearly budget? The government pays for all its A, B, C and D checks, and other mandatory obligations. But because the airline had a budget, every government department then flew Nigeria Airways with warrant officers for free. In the military, for instance, ranks from Colonel and above flew in First Class cabins. Those below got Economy Class. For government establishments, Directorship level also got First Class and the rest, Economy. That was how the airline ran. It wasn’t meant for profit. So, how will it survive?

Also, the presidency didn’t have an aircraft designated to it. Whenever the presidency had a function, they would just pull out an aircraft immediately, either for local or international operations. There was a time the scheduled flights of the airline were just disrupted midway. That was how even the government contributed to the death of the airline.

Now, how did staff and management contribute to its death? It is corruption. Everybody was helping him or herself through the airline. Everyone was employed based on the quota system. But you will begin to get it wrong when you apply the quota system in the aviation sector. The management of the airline did employ mediocres into places they should not be; give people positions above their levels and qualifications, thereby demoralising other staff that are better qualified. There were cases in which Station Managers were sacked or recalled for not doing the biddings of some people in government, especially when they wanted their non-revenue luggage to be given priority above luggage of fee-paying passengers.

Is the quota system part of the reasons airlines still die?
Quota system is killing the Nigerian system up till now. I am not against quota system in certain things, so that we can have equal presentation. But there are some certain things that will require technical qualifications. Those who put the quota system in place had a good intention, but when we start to play politics with it, then, it will continue to work against us.

What is your view about the call for local airlines’ merger?
I think we are joking. We will never be able to merge where every operator comes with his own model. We will never agree on models. For instance, look at the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) today. We don’t have a body as far as I am concerned because some people think their ideas should be superior to others. In a group, you don’t think like that; you have to convince people to buy your idea.

If an airline is run professionally, first, it must have the dream of the founding fathers. What is the dream of the founding fathers because it plays a big role in a merger plan? The dream I had is that when I retire, I want to have a one per cent share of my airline. Even though I founded it, I want my great grandchildren to have shares in it. But the issue about merger in Nigeria is that people want to have ownership and die with it without transferring it to experts that can handle it.

What we need the most is the will of the government to have a robust aviation industry. That is not there. If the government is actually interested in developing aviation, it will be there in its policies. There will be deliberate policies to grow the industry and this General Aviation will be the solution to it. That is why for me, I advocate for complete autonomy of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) under the current administration. This will do a lot of good for the industry and some of these challenges will be checkmated.

There are claims by some charter operators that a couple of private jet owners are converting their planes into hire and reward services (illegally).

I have been into chartered flights before I got the Air Operators’ Certificate (AOC) for the West Link Airlines. I was managing a company before I set up my own. Before then, I had always been in the advocacy of doing the right thing and that is why I decided to set up my own airline. I can tell you that it is true because as a certified operator, I know most of the passengers who are regular. There was a time some of them complained to me that I charge more, and they had got it cheaper.

The fact is that the government should be more worried because it is losing a lot of revenues. I pay the five per cent Ticket Sales Charge (TSC), even if I don’t have the cash with me. I owe it and I must pay; I can’t jump it.

But, those that are doing these sharp practices are not captured in the NCAA data. So, NCAA cannot go after them.

Then, I think the Department of State Security (DSS) should have intervened because this was purely economic sabotage for them to remain for this long, even when the former Director-General of NCAA suspended some of them.

That is why I felt that if the Director-General of the NCAA has full autonomy, he would do his job without looking at the body language of the minister.

Even, the passengers are also endangering themselves flying private jets because no insurance company would want to compensate the victims when an accident occurs. The NCAA should ask the DSS to check the operations. I can tell you that within three to four weeks, the truth will be known. What business do you operate when you fly three of four times in a day? Yet, the airline will claim it is flying private.

The Federal Government has an ambitious plan to set up an aircraft leasing company and maintenance facility that have not materialised in the last six years. Are you impressed?
I remember that our panel advised the Federal Government to set up a leasing company that will help and strengthen the airlines here. We don’t have to be looking for dollars to pay our lease. We recommended that N500 billion should be set aside by the government in 2013, as aircraft leasing company for local operators to access and bring their planes in.

Also, the lessor is supposed to be a Nigerian leasing company. So, we will be paying here. All the income will be domiciled here and it will help to strengthen our naira. It will be only spareparts and training that we may worry about. If we intensify our things properly, we can even have our training reduced to Nigeria as we have all the airplanes simulators here.

Kenya has Life Safety there. It is because we have not put our acts together that is why all these things are all over the place. It should be in Nigeria because that is where the market is.

-Punch

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