Lagos — With dwindling airlines and aircraft, with the roads not any better for safe travel, Nigerian travellers are perhaps having the worst travel experience in the whole world. Hundreds of business deals and economic trips are being frustrated because Nigerians can't travel, when they want to.
On June 3, 2013, Dana Air dropped off the skies killing all 153 passengers and around 10 residents around Iju-Isaga, Lagos.
What followed was the grounding of its operations and keeping all its four MD 83 aircraft out of service, stopping some 22 daily flights and sending about 2,500 passengers per day to fight for seats offered by other airlines.
Shortly after that, First Nation Airways took its three aircraft comprising Airbus A320s and Boeing B767-300ERs aircraft for maintenance abroad. For over three months, the aircraft have not returned. This sent additional passengers searching for airlines to fly and increasing competition. First Nation had in excess 1,000 passengers per day.
The industry was getting choked already and the shocker came - Air Nigeria, one of the largest among the airlines, with 11 aircraft packed off on September 10, 2012 sending more thousands of its passengers to Arik, Aero, IRS and Overland to deal with. It has not been easy for the remaining airlines.
Numerous airlines went under
Among the airlines, that have gone under in the past 10 years sending shivers down the spine of Nigeria's local aviation route, either permanently or temporarily are Chanchangi, Bellview, ADC, EAS, Slok, Savanna, Triax, Air Mid West, Oriental, Dasab, Albarka, Fresh Air, Sosoliso Airlines, Okada, Space World, Harka and Harco. The latest is Air Nigeria.
Not long, before Dana and Associated Aviation stoped flying, IRS Airlines, Dana Air, Associated Aviation, and Overland Airways operated on the average about 200 flights daily.
Currently Just four airlines are providing regular domestic operations (chatter service exclusive). They are Arik Air, Aero Contractors, IRS Airlines and Overland. Arik Air, Aero and IRS currently are flying a total of 29 aircraft.
Arik which has about 40 percent market share operates average of 120 flights daily. Currently, it does an average of 7,000 passengers daily, well ahead of its previous heights of about 5,000 before the crisis in the industry worsened. Arik is followed by Aero which operates about 60 flights daily carrying over 4,000 passengers per day.
A lot of passengers are no longer catered for following dwindling number of air lines and consequently, aircraft. Conservative figures, unconfirmed though, put passengers not being catered for in excess of 38,000 per day.
With the increasing carnage on the roads and poor road state, hapless Nigerians lose business deals and stop economic travels because they can't get a light or are losing time on the road.
Mr Ugochukwu John, who wanted to catch a flight to Abuja last Thursday afternoon on emergency call couldn't make it because he couldn't get a ticket on all airlines. "I lost the deal. I hate to think about it," he told our correspondent.
Other passengers also related their frustrations. Angela Umoh expressed dismay over the few airlines flying. "I just paid N28,000 for a 50-minute flight to Abuja. This is rather unfortunate. But what can we do? The airlines can afford to take advantage of us because of the shortage of airlines and few number of flights per day. Sometimes for N32,000 you can't even get a ticket. It's that bad," she quipped. She noted that after all the costs flights are delayed.
Another passenger, Elizabeth Aina, also decried the current low capacity in local airline operations. She wondered why government cannot put in concrete steps to support the industry even if it means starting a national carrier and engaging competent hands to handle it.
Checks by our correspondent showed that almost all seats on Arik Air, Aero Contractors and IRS Airlines flights are usually fully booked on all routes, several hours before the boarding time of the flight. This was hardly the case when Dana, Air Nigeria and First Nation Airways were flying.
What NCAA says
The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) spokesman, Mr. Sam Adurogboye, told our correspondent that the current low capacity in the local airline operations is a source of worry to NCAA as well. He said NCAA is currently processing six applications from airlines that would want to operate Nigeria's local routes.
On government's support to local airlines, he said NCAA has always believed that special funds or concessions be made to the airline operators to help make them operate with ease.
Previous efforts by govt in support
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had earlier given a lifeline of N300 billion to local airlines, in form of bailout while the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) bought over N135 billion debts from them.
The money was to free airlines from crippling debts so they could reinvest their profits into their operations rather than service debts with them. But this hasn't made any impact. Even the minister of aviation, Princess Stella Oduah had called for the review of that mode of intervention as it did not help the industry.
Our correspondent sought reactions from Arik Air, Aero Contractors and IRS on how they are responding to the increased demands for air services. Only Arik Air responded.
According to Adebanji Ola, PR and Communications Manager, Arik Air, "Arik Air introduced a new flight programme on July 30 and with that, more seats are now available to domestic air travellers and this has ensured on-time departure and passenger satisfaction."
The innovation in the new programme he said, "is the introduction of a Lagos-Abuja-Lagos and Lagos-Port Harcourt-Lagos shuttle. The introduction of the shuttle now makes it possible for passengers to connect a flight between the two city pairs every one or two hours. With the new programme, eight flights are now available weekdays on the Lagos-Abuja-Lagos route and six on Lagos-Port Harcourt-Lagos route.
"On Saturdays, seven flights are available on the Lagos-Abuja-Lagos route and six flights on Sundays. Four flights are available on the Lagos-Port Harcourt route on Saturdays and five on Sundays. On the Port Harcourt-Lagos route, five flights are available on Saturdays and four on Sundays."
He said Arik Air has not introduced any new domestic routes as it has covered almost all the operational airports in Nigeria; but "has inaugurated a new international route from Lagos to Douala, Cameroon. This new route which was inaugurated on August 30, 2012 operates three times a week on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday."
Though Dana Air will soon return, if it doesn't operate more aircraft and if First Nations doesn't return in good time, the crisis will still continue.
How do experts feel?
Aviation experts agreed that the Nigerian aviation industry needs special intervention from the government to prevent it from collapsing. The Assistant Secretary-General, Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) Mr. Mohammed Tukur has persistently called for government's intervention in the sector through bailout funds and duty cuts.
Same goes for the President, Aviation Round Table, Captain Dele Ore. Also Concerned Aviation Professionals and other stakeholders have been calling on the government to urgently aid domestic air operations in Nigeria. But will government heed? We wait in baited breath.