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COVID-19: Experts warn against fresh flight restrictions

Aviation industry experts have raised concerns over likely impact of the second wave of COVID-19 on the global aviation sector warning that any ‘knee jerk reaction’ by government could cause more harm to  struggling domestic airlines.

These concerns were raised following reports from the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 on the surge in infected cases. To tackle the surge in infectious diseases, the Federal Government  recently imposed new restrictions amid the rising cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in various parts of the country. The chairman of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, explained that the directives were advisories issued to state authorities for implementation over the next five weeks.

The new restrictions include the closure of all bars, nightclubs, pubs and event centres, as well as recreational venues in all states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). All restaurants were also directed to close, except those providing services to hotel residents, takeaways, home deliveries, and drive-ins.

In addition to the restirctions, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Auhtority(NCAA) said passengers flying from the United Kingdom and South Africa into Nigeria would be received and processed seperately by public health authorities because of the spike in infections in those countries. It also said a fine of $3,500 for each passenger would be imposed for non compliance to the government’s protocol. 

Already, the initial six months restriction on domestic and international flights cost the industry almost one billion dollars in losses and $800 million to Nigeria’s economy according to the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Captain Musa Nuhu and despite the resumption of local and international flights, the recovery rate is still very slow.  The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that the recovery of passenger demand continued to be disappointingly slow in October. It said African airlines’ traffic sank 78.6 per cent in October, improved from an 84.9 per cent drop in September. Capacity contracted 67.5 per cent, and load factor fell 23.8 percentage points to 45.5 per cent.

International passenger demand in October was down 87.8 per cent compared to October 2019 which is unchanged from the 88.0 per cent  year-to-year decline recorded in September. Capacity was 76.9 per cent below previous year levels, and load factor shrank 38.3 percentage points to 42.9 per cent. Domestic demand drove what little recovery there was, with October domestic traffic down 40.8 per cent compared to the prior year. This was improved from a 43.0 per cent year-to-year decline in September. Capacity was 29.7 per cent below 2019 levels and the load factor dropped 13.2 percentage points to 70.4 per cent. 

IATA’s Alexandre de Juniac, blamed the slow recovery on ‘heavy handed quarantines’ as a result of fresh outbreaks of the virus. An instance of such ‘heavy handed’ policy is the reaction of the United Kingdom after the British government announced that a new variant of the COVID-19 virus has been detected and is spreading. This development caused the British government to announce a more stringent lockdown and in addition, 40 countries in Europe, Asia, South America, the Caribbean and the Middle East have restricted travel from the UK and in some cases, also travel from other countries that have documented cases with the variant.

The variant has also been detected in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, according to the World Health Organisation.

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Alexandre de Juniac, who is opposed to very strict restrictions, said more support will be needed in the form of financial stimulus as many of the support packages for the airlines are running out, but losses continue to mount. Airline losses are now forecast to top $118 billion this year and nearly $39 billion in 2021. The industry is expected to continue burning through cash at a rate of almost $7 billion per month in the first half of 2021.

  “Fresh outbreaks of COVID-19 and governments’ continued reliance on heavy-handed quarantines resulted in another catastrophic month for air travel demand. While the pace of recovery is faster in some regions than others, the overall picture for international travel is grim. This uneven recovery is more pronounced in domestic markets, with China’s domestic market having nearly recovered, while most others remain deeply depressed,” he said.

 Further restrictions could triple cost of fares

 Over the past few weeks, the price of air fare to several routes across many domestic airlines increased by 100 percent due to increase in operating costs, inability to access forex and insecurity. The Managing Director of Aero Contractors, Captain Ado Sanusi, said domestic airlines are increasingly finding it very difficult to access foreign exchange which is one of the driving factors of cost of airfare. He also pointed out that the increase in charges by the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) is another major cause of the hike in air fare and that if these issues are not addressed; air prices would continue to rise.

Despite assurance by the Federal Government in June this year that air fares will not increase when the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) increased Passenger Service Charge (PSC)which took effect from August 1. The managing director of FAAN, Captain Rabiu Yadudu, told Airline Operators that it will increase the PSC from N1, 000 to N2000 for domestic airlines and US $50 to US$ 100 for international travel.

Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, had in June assured air travelers in the country that ticket prices will not increase after flight  resumption. His twitter handle said: “Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, assures Nigerians that the expected re-opening of the airspace for domestic flight may not necessarily lead to a hike in fares. We are doing everything to ensure that ticket prices do not skyrocket. They may be different but they are not going to be something that air passengers cannot afford.”

But that assurance never stood the lest of times as the implementation of the latest increase from FAAN has already taken effect.

In fact, FAAN revealed in its letter to the operators that it was Sirika who had earlier assured that there wouldn’t be ticket hike that approved the fare increases.  According to Yadudu, the Airports managers engaged the NCAA and relevant stakeholders leading to its delayed implementation from 2017 till date. He said the cap on the value of the PSC is simply outdated as the last review of PSC on domestic route from N350 to N1000 and from $35 to $50 on the international route was on 21 March 2011 and May 1, 2011 respectively.

Airline operators opposed the increase at the time, warning that it would affect the price of air tickets. The Managing Director, Quorum Aviation, Abiola Lawal, said the timing for the implementation of the new regime is wrong considering the negative effects of the Corona pandemic.

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“In this pandemic and economic hard time? Is this the right time for FAAN or any agency to be increasing statutory fees? Rather this should be time to reduce the high cost of operations in Nigeria and to encourage air travels. And the increase is not a single digit increase. It is 100 per cent. Domestic from N1000 to N2000 and foreign from $50 to $100. These are massive increases and really should be revisited,” Lawal said at the time.

Experts speak

Aviation expert, Amos Akpan, said despite the surge in COVID-19 cases, the government doesn’t need to impose new flight restrictions, saying the industry and the country’s economy won’t survive it. He told Daily Sun that the restrictions the PTF put in place is sufficient if the government can ensure compliance, hence, no flight restrictions are needed. “The measures announced by the PTF are sufficient if the Nigerian public obeys them. The government should ensure public compliance through aggressive propaganda and punishment of offenders. No more lockdown because the economy will not survive another lockdown. The government should monitor International flights and restrict travels to and from high infection territories. We may need to temporarily suspend flights to some territories.

“No restriction on domestic flights. The Nigerian aviation industry demonstrates high percentage of compliance with covid-19 protocols as recommended. The medical scientists should keep updating the industry regulators with improved measures of handling the pandemic, and the regulator will ensure operators compliance. The impact of covid-19 is already felt in the industry and we are managing the situation with what is available. Every business in the sector is experiencing the effect; they have to re-strategise and innovate to survive the effects of covid-19 on their businesses. The government should be cautious in handling this stage because we need the businesses to keep running,” Akpan said.

Captain John Ojikutu echoed the same sentiments, telling Daily Sun that we should avoid a ‘knee jerk’ approach to issues. “We should avoid knee jerk approach and not always be copycats. Can’t we try to be innovative in our own way for others to copy? Have we made references to how South Koreans or even Chinese managed themselves and the pandemic? My suggestions now are not different from what I suggested in March but everything about us is how to spend monies that are not available. We knew of initial N15.5billion for Lagos state alone but we are yet to be told how much was given to the other 35 States and Abuja FCT. Nobody has told us how much was generated from the various evacuation flights, etc and nobody is asking. We don’t have to stop international flights but distribute them to the four international airports and restrict each to just one airport; none should fly to more than one airport for easy tracing and tracking of any suspected passenger,” he said.


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