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Why local airlines are battling flight cancellations, delays

It is called the early bird, and Aaron Majeed, who works in Abuja but returns to Lagos where his family is based every fortnight, calls it “the saviour” as he is placed at the door steps of his office early enough Monday mornings without attracting a lateness query.

“Except there is an issue with weather, its on-time departure makes it look like the saviour that keeps my job and family together. Over the last two years, the first flight on my preferred local airlines has proved most reliable. Once I overcome the challenge of waking up at about 4am and I am able to get to the Lagos airport between 5am and 6am, I am certain of getting to my Abuja office before 9am; sometimes earlier than that. This gives me so much confidence knowing that my job and family are within reach,” he said.

Indeed, in an industry where passenger perception of on-time departure with local airlines is negative and cannot be trusted, Aaron said he could place a bet on his preferred carrier and not lose.

But in recent weeks, that confidence has waned in the carrier he patronises. It is even becoming unwise or foolish to wholeheartedly trust an airline to stick to its scheduled departure time. “It is like staking a most precious possession for a virgin in a labour room,” he said.

Without doubt, Aaron’s cynicism, is one shared by hundreds of air travellers and now further bolstered by the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant  economic lockdown  of various sectors.

Kingsley Ezenwa, spokesman of Dana Air, yesterday told Daily Sun that the industry is currently beset by challenges thrown up by the Coronavirus pandemic. He said low passenger patronage, an aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown now constitutes a huge challenge to scheduled commercial flight operations.

“After the lockdown, the airlines had to cut down on schedules and operating cost for a period of at least three months to see what patronage would look like before increasing schedules,” he said. “Some airlines are just resuming some routes stopped during the lockdown, while some airlines have closed some of their routes completely.”

He, however, commended the Federal Government for the COVID-19 interventions and some of other steps taken to keep the airlines afloat even as he appealed for more support.

Why cancellations, delays

There is one undeniable fact that passengers who get to infuriated each time an announcement is made on a flight cancellation or delay due to “technical reasons” often ignore.

Aircraft are like any mechanical or electrical devices and are prone to breakdowns that require repairs or maintenance, and in other occasions some of its parts just simply need to be replaced.

Technical problems tend to be caused by parts of the aircraft wearing down, and because the industry operates with the highest standards of safety, once technical issues occur, and something is not working 100 per cent as it should, the first step is to delay the flight and fix the problem. It is this high level of strictness to safety rules and processes, which often leads to flights delay or cancellations. And it is a trend that should be applauded as this remains the core reason that commercial flights is considered the safest method of transportation in the world.

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If passengers acknowledged this, there ought to appreciate airlines for sticking to safety rules, rather than the usual anger and unruly attacks on airline staff. The other thing to note is that airlines are profit making ventures and it is only in flying that they make money, understanding this would help explain why no Nigerian airline would take delight in delaying or cancelling a flight.

The challenge of MROs

However, while some maintenances can be done immediately at the apron by a team of engineers working with the airline, some are so complex requiring taking out the aircraft to a maintenance facility for an overhaul.

Maintenances, also called checks, done periodically to keep the aircraft safe and airworthy costs a lot of money. These are the C and D checks carried out in Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities in Europe, Asia or America. A C-check is mandatory on an every 18 months, according to Nigerian civil aviation regulations and costs a minimum of $1million (about N470million). It requires the inspection of the majority of an aircraft’s components, some of which may be replaced, during a maintenance programme lasting about two weeks. D-check involves the complete overhaul of an aircraft that may be done every six years and could cost an average of $3-7million, depending on the aircraft type.

The challenge, however, is that aviation in Nigeria, more than any other industry, is dependent on hard or foreign currency -notably, the U.S dollar. For instance, no component of an aircraft is manufactured in Nigeria and very few are sold by vendors in naira.

“It is this dependency that creates a mismatch in income and expenditure for investors. Funds generated from ticket sales in naira have to be converted to U.S dollars for purchase or lease of aircraft, routine and mandatory fleet maintenances abroad, purchase of spares, insurance and reinsurance payments.” said an industry vendor, Emmanuel Usen.

“And what compounds the woes of local airlines is the absence of an MRO to undertake most of the periodic and mandatory aircraft checks in Nigeria,”Usen added.

Indeed, apart from the Boeing 737-500 series which can be fixed at the Aero contractors hanger in Lagos, other aircraft types have to be flown abroad for checks.

And because the industry is dollar denominated, meaning Nigerian airlines have to search for scarce forex at exorbitant cost, overseas repairs of aircraft have continued to drain the lean purse of local operators lowering their capacity, revenue and chances of survival. It is reported that the industry could be spending an estimated N35billion in the next 20 years on mandatory checks on aircraft in overseas maintenance yards.

COVID-19 challenges

With the outbreak of COVID-19, the situation has, however, gone from bad to worse.

The pandemic has wrecked such great havoc on airlines that most of them are experiencing fleet capacity challenges. For some airlines, available aircraft in their fleet are fewer than passengers leading to a mismatch in demand and supply.

Air passengers groaning and sometimes abusing airlines for flight delays and cancellations are ignorant that the impact of the lockdown occasioned by the Coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for  prompt return of airplanes taken for checks in foreign MROs. Aircraft maintenances that ordinary should not last longer than two to three weeks have been stretched into months. For instance, a situation where a four-aircraft fleet airline has two of its aircraft taken out for foreign maintenance lasting longer than planned would certainly result in depleted fleets and a rationing of route services with  its two remaining aircraft. The fallout of rationing is the attendant flight cancellations and delays by some of the airlines as one aircraft which hitherto services four routes, now has to be deployed to more routes. In this case, an airlines like Air Peace, which  has the largest fleet of aircraft and flies into more routes in the country, understandably has become the worse hit from the COVID-19 lockdown.

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The same situation might have caused the delay in the delivery of Air Peace new planes even as the airline hopes to take delivery of additional planes  in June and July to normalise its operations.

There are no reasons not to believe that the airlines which appear to be insulated for now because their aircraft are not due for checks until after 18 months would not encounter the same problem of flight delays and cancellations if the pandemic persists.

Resolving the challenge

Most stakeholders in the industry are of the view that the government should partner with the private sector to establish a vibrant MRO as a way of resolving some of these challenges. Aviation creates thousands of local jobs and nothing should be spared to keep these jobs and boost the country GDP.

Aviation analyst and member of Aviation Round Table (ART), Olu Ohunayo told Daily Sun that a functional state-of-the-art MRO in Nigeria to service aircraft types flown by local airlines would put an end to the crisis usually experienced by airlines taking their aircraft offshore.

“We need to have an MRO in Nigeria to save the local airlines spending scarce forex ferrying airlines to foreign MROs for  maintenance,” he said. He also suggested that the government through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) create a special window for the airline industry to access forex for its operations, including aircraft maintenance offshore.

“The special window  created by the CBN should be monitored to ensure the forex gets to the right persons. And when we say we need palliatives for the industry, it should specifically be given to commercial schedule operators and not every airline on the AON list,” he said.

“Regulators have done their jobs well, and we thank the government for the removal of VAT and the promised help after the lockdown, though it came a bit late. But we expect the government to continue supporting domestic airlines. The US gave its airlines additional support to absorb COVID-19 losses. So we need support in terms of tax holidays, infrastructure development at airports and reduction in cost of JET A1 pump price,” said Kingsley Ezenwa, spokesman for Dana Air.


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