When you assumed office as the Rector at NCAT, what did you meet on ground and what reforms did you introduce?
Like you know, I have only been the rector for seven months. I was appointed in the middle of January this year. Things have changed compared to when I was there. My first job as a professional pilot was at NCAT. I was an instructor. I remember in 1977 when I graduated, only 88 students graduated. Right now we graduate in excess of 300 students every year. Then we had fewer schools and the intake was lower. We had just a hostel, now we have several hostels and a dedicated female hostel.
The school has expanded over the years. We have additional aircraft and additional schools have been established. NCAT Zaria is one of the few aviation training schools in the world that is a one stop training institution that offers training for pilots, cabin crew, flight dispatchers, air traffic controllers, aircraft maintenance and engineers and English language specialists for aviation language. We have aeronautical telecommunications engineers (they maintain the instrument landing systems, the radios, approach light etc at the airport), and we do aviation management courses now.
We offer diploma and post graduate diploma certificates in aviation management. We also offer entrepreneurship training and we are encouraging the government to use it for youths’ empowerment. We train on basic skills like electricity installations and maintenance, solar power installations, refrigeration system etc.
One of the challenges the school has been facing over the years which affects the duration of our flying courses is the aviation fuel on aircraft (AVGAS). It’s used on propeller aircraft. It’s different from what jet aircraft use. We use very little quantity compared to what the big commercial aircraft use. So the fuel marketers are not interested in bringing it. It’s scarce and quite expensive. It’s about three times as expensive as JetA1. Because of that the college, two years ago, decided to re-fleet the aircraft in the college with the those that uses JetA1. That will be easier on us and cheaper. The Federal Government approved we re-fleet with Diamond Aircraft from Austria. We’ve commenced the re-fleeting.
Also, the college is recognized by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations and a Nigerian is currently its president. All the courses we offer are approved by ICAO. We operate to ICAO standards. We are a member of the Global Aviation Training, an arm of ICAO that looks at global training issues and standards. We are also in the process of being upgraded to a ICAO regional training centre of excellence. That is the highest achievement of any aviation training organisation. We’ve gone far with the process and we hope to achieve that status by the end of this year. When we achieve that, it will open up training opportunities for us because we will have international recognition to meet the training needs of not just Nigeria but other countries within the sub-region. The future is bright for the college.
We are also in the process of installing the B737 Next Gen flight simulator, which is the latest version. As you know, it’s a regulatory requirement for commercial pilots to do training every six months. Since the establishment of airlines in Nigeria, we never had this capability so pilots have always gone abroad to train. NCAT recognized this and decided to install that simulator in Zaria. Once it is installed, there would be no need for airlines using Boeing to send their pilots abroad for periodic training. It makes it easier and saves us some foreign exchange. We are also trying to introduce helicopter trainings for pilots. All along we have been training fixed wing pilots in the 53 years of the college. We recognise there is a huge need for helicopter pilots. They use them a lot in the oil and gas industry.
Why are Nigerians sending their wards abroad for pilot training? Even Kano State government not too long ago sent students on scholarships to Jordan in spite NCAT’s capacity and faculty?
I don’t know what informed the then government of Kano State to take that decision. But they do send students for us to train as air traffic controllers; aeronautical telecommunications engineers’ and we have trained them. Probably, the college didn’t have the capacity to train the number of people they wanted to train at the time hence their decision to take some abroad. Typically we limit our students’ intake to 20 per course. For most of the courses that we run, ICAO recommends we limit the class size to 20. Our students always excel anywhere in the world. I trained in Zaria and I have flown to all the continents of the world except Australia. In the days of Nigerian Airways, anyone trained abroad, if he gets hired by the NA is sent to Zaria for refresher. We were that recognised.
What’s your viewpoint on a national carrier? Should it be government owned or privately owned?
We have to learn from the mistakes of the past. Nigerian Airways collapsed because of government interference. It was 100 percent government’s so the government interference was huge. Government owned national carriers fail for the same reason. For a national carrier to succeed in Nigeria there must be little or no interference. The only way that will happen is through the public, private, partnership where government will have only a small number of shares and allow the private sector to drive it. If you can recall, Emirates is government owned and successful. But the top management staff are expatriates brought from elsewhere to manage the airline. The government is represent on the board but the managers are experts.
There is a need for a national carrier for Nigeria. I was the chairman of the committee on the establishment of the national carrier set up by the government about two years ago. We looked at it thoroughly. We interacted with those for and against a national carrier. But the majority was for it. The only way we can move aviation forward is through the establishment of a national carrier. The private airlines do not have the capacity required for the infrastructure changes that we need; the huge investments in training and establishment of facilities. Since the demise of Nigerian Airways, we have had private airlines but they haven’t been able to build the capability the Nigerian Airways had. In fact, they are still relying on what Nigerian Airways had and the people the Nigerian Airways trained.
We have large number of unemployed pilots. No one wants to employ them because they are inexperienced. But when you have a national carrier, all the people who are working in the private airlines will want to join the national carrier. This will free the other airlines to employ the several pilots that are unemployed. There will be a lot of employment opportunities. An airline drives an economy of a nation. You may not necessarily make money from the airline but you will make money from other areas that the airline drives – like tourism. Tourism is big and we have a huge population. If we have a national carrier, Nigerians are very patriotic. They will fly the national carrier. We saw that spirit in Virgin Nigeria. I flew for Virgin Nigeria and we saw how Nigerians accepted the airline. So there are great potentials. And you can also make money.
It’s only the national carrier with government support and guarantees that can be able to acquire the big new aircraft which up to now, Nigerian private airlines haven’t been able to access.
Someone told me that the president was excited about your report. But he is being discouraged which is why the project is dragging. Are you aware Mr. President is not as enthusiastic about the national carrier the way he used to be?
I don’t think that is correct. The government accepted our report and its being implemented. As we speak, the issue of the national carrier is in the 2017 budget. Setting up an airline is a lengthy process. It’s not like other companies where you approach the CAC, register a company and the next day, you are in business. Because what we recommended was a PPP, the ICRC requires that a transaction advisor has to be appointed. The government appointed one about three months ago. That transaction adviser will now identify prospective parties interested in investing in the national carrier. That is both the external technical partners and Nigerian investors. They will set up the team and present the composition to government. When that is accepted, they will start the process of registration at the Corporate Affairs Commission. By then you will know the shareholders. After that, they will start the process of acquiring the Air Operating Certificate (AOC), from the NCAA. Before you even get an AOC, you must get an Air Transport License (ATL). You will also need evidence of financial capability to do airline business. AOC takes about 90 days.
So setting a national carrier is time consuming but the process has started. It’s not that the president is having a second thought on the national carrier.
On the B737 simulator that is being acquired, why is it taking so long to have it in Nigeria?
As you know this contract is dollar denominated and it’s not that the money was given to the college. The college is government owned so we are funded free by the government. We did include the project in our capital project and the amount of money involved cannot pay for that capital budget in one or even two years because when we are making budgets, we don’t go beyond the ceiling we are given. If you put 100 percent of our capital appropriation together for a year, it can’t pay for the simulator. That is why it was spread for two years. Unfortunately because of the recession we found ourselves in, there were no capital releases, and the college couldn’t meet the payment terms. That is why it is taking so long. We hope that by the end of this year, we would have paid sufficiently for the manufacturer to come and install the simulator.
The simulator has been built and is waiting for us in Canada. Once we made the necessary payments, it will be shipped and installed in Zaria. But we are yet to get the releases for 2017 capital budget and the year is almost gone. These are some of the challenges we face.
Talking about recession, the contribution of aviation to GDP is very low. When the national carrier is finally set up, how would that affect the impact of aviation on GDP?
There will be employment opportunities and for us at NCAT, there will be training opportunities because we will train more people. It will also drive tourism. Also, more people will fly and more businesses will connect each other. There will also be jobs for the service providers like caterers, aviation fuel dealers etc. and everybody gets to benefit. If the national carrier is succeeding, more confidence will be restored to Nigeria as a country and more foreign investors will be inclined to investing in Nigeria. Aviation drives the economy and there are huge benefits of a national carrier.
In addition to the national carrier, we will have Maintenance and Repair Organization (MRO) and the leasing company, which also formed the core of our recommendations. Since Nigerian airlines are not able to lease from foreign companies, we will have a local company which can lease aircraft to local airlines, but not only Nigerian airlines but other African countries’ airlines. The advantages include: it will be easier to lease, you don’t have to pay in dollars, and this makes it easier to pay and it keeps the dollars in Nigeria.
Did you also recommend the collapse of the private airlines into one national carrier?
We considered that, considering that AMCON owned a large chunk of Aero and Arik. So the proposal was to merge Arik and Aero to become the national carrier. But we felt these two airlines have too much baggage. Therefore we opted for a new airline without liabilities and encumbrances that will hit the ground running. Regardless of whatever name you use, once the American and European creditors know its Arik, they will ground the aircraft if it enters their territory.
There was this aviation intervention fund which became mired in controversies. Its surprising the airlines failed in spite of the huge interventions. What went wrong?
If you ask those airlines, they will tell you they never really got the money. It was more like interventions for the banks. The banking sector was suffering because of the huge debts the airlines owed them. When the bailout came, AMCON came and bought off the debts form the commercial banks. So the airlines where now owing AMCON instead of the banks. They negotiated lower interest rates with the banks. But it didn’t help. A lot of the airlines were underfunded when they were set up. The airlines were using their own funds basically; they didn’t have access to cheap credit from commercial banks. A lot of the foreign airlines are funded by the banks at single digit interest rates while our airlines paid more for credit. With a profit margin of about 4 percent and you are paying interests of 20 percent, how do you survive? Because an airline business is capital intensive, a prospective investor needs to do his or her home work very well and have a very good business plan. They also need people who are knowledgeable in the industry to run the airlines.
Airlines shouldn’t be run like family businesses. There are some basic things you do when you run an airline. You plan and save towards major checks and maintenances. A lot of the private airlines that went down in Nigeria failed because they couldn’t afford to do major checks on their aircraft. They fly the aircraft for about two years and when the aircraft is due for a major check that will cost in excess $1 million, they couldn’t afford it, so they grounded them. That’s how the airlines died.
Do your graduates get jobs with the slow growth of the aviation industry?
The pilots find it difficult getting jobs but the other processionals we train get jobs. For instance, the air traffic controllers work for NAMA. NAMA employs all of them because there are huge demands for them. The same thing goes with the aero telecommunications engineers. They also work for NAMA and FAAN. The pilots and engineers look for jobs. For the pilots, quite a number of them are still looking for jobs. But we do tell them upon graduation not to go looking for jobs in the big airlines as soon as they graduate. They should go into the general aviation (charter operations, private jobs, aerial works like surveying, mapping, cargo etc). Here they will fly smaller aircraft that they will use to build up flying hours and experience.
The main issue is that they lack experience it’s not that they are not qualified. For insurance purposes, most airlines require a pilot has at least 1,500 flying hours before he is employed. Experience of a pilot is calculated in the number of hours flown. Every hour we fly, we log it from day one. There are certain courses that before you qualify to go, you must have certain number of flying hours. In most cases, the insurance policy for the aircraft will state the minimum experience for the captain, the minimum for the co-pilot. If you violate that, in the event of an accident, they won’t pay. The Nigerian insurance industry doesn’t have capacity to cover 100 percent of aviation risks. They only cover about 15 percent and the rest is sent to London. These are the requirements in London and they have to meet them. But if we open up the general aviation industry, which government has begun to, there will be a lot of opportunities for young pilots. There are a lot of private jets now flying in Nigeria. Though most of them are foreign registered and flown by foreigners but with NCAA regulations, a lot of them are being registered in Nigeria and employing Nigerian pilots. If one Nigerian pilot will be employed in all the private jets, a lot of our pilots will be employed.
Can you bring us up to speed on the re-fleeting programme at NCAT?
Recall we took delivery of one Diamond 42 aircraft earlier this year. For this budget year, we plan to bring in two additional Diamond 40s. Unfortunately, the manufacturers told us they are relocating the assembly plant from Austria to Canada. So we will face a delay of about 9 months before the Canadian plant is up and they can produce the DA 40s which are the single engines. Because of that, we opted for another twin Engine Diamond which they will supply before the end of the year subject to release of funds. But our plan from inception was to order them in batches of five. The total number ordered was 20. If we were to order five annually, that means it will take us four years to complete the order. But all that is subject to release of funds.
However, when we finish paying for the simulator, some funds will be freed up so we can allocate more funds for the re-fleeting.
Do you think we have willing investors in the national carrier in Nigeria at the moment?
I believe so because when we had our sitting, a lot of prospective investors came and signified their interest in the national carrier. Some of the prospective investors that came told us categorically that they didn’t need a penny from government. They had the money to invest.
How much percentage in equity will the government retain?
I don’t know how much percentage the government will take but we recommended only 5 percent equity for government so government cannot influence decisions. But government will provide the enabling environment and guarantees. Government will also hold shares in trust for the Nigerian investors since they can’t sell shares immediately to the public until after three years. So after three years, government will divest those shares.