11 November 2012

Nigeria: 'Airport Security Needs Further Improvement'


As Arik Air marks its 6th anniversary, Chris Ndulue, Managing Director of the airline in this interview with NKEM OSUAGWU, highlights his vision for the airline while urging the airport authorities to further improve on aviation security to safeguard aircraft and passengers.

What is your experience in the Aviation industry?

I have had a lot of experiences in various establishments including banking, conglomerate, manufacturing, oil and gas, then the power sector before I came to aviation. You know, there is a lot of synergy between aviation and the power sectors; because the machines - the engines they use in generating power is exactly what the aircraft use in flying.

I have been in Arik Air for a little more than six years. But I did not start as the Managing Director.

As the managing director, what value have you added to the airline?

It is a very tough industry. One of the greatest achievements you can have is for you to even keep going (flying). I have been managing director for the past three years, and you can see that a lot has happened in the past three years.

We had started the business but all the other milestones like the membership of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), expansion of the fleet, international operations and even the improvements you can see like the on-time performance are things we have recorded in the past two years and we want to continue with that.

Where do you see the airline in the next three or four years?

We have come to the stage where we have set up the airline, but we need to build the structures around it. We need to begin to look into fine tuning our operations. We also need to expand but not domestically. We have covered almost all the airport, but we are increasing frequencies in some routes just in response to the demand, like every one hour during peak periods we have at least a flight between Lagos and Abuja every one hour, and off peak periods every two hours.

But I see the airline establishing itself as a leading carrier in Africa in the next three years. When we were one year old we said we were the number one airline in Nigeria. It was clear we came with a bang and we have established ourselves as the market leader.

Apart from Zero per cent duty on aircraft importation, what are you expecting the government to do for airlines?

You know this is just a proposal in the 2013 budget. It's just a budget proposal; it is not as if the duty has actually been removed now.

However, there are so many things that the government can still do. We have to stop Abuja London flights, just because we were paying a British carrier in order to fly from Abuja to London. That is very bad. What the government wanted to do for us was to sort this out with the British government, but it has not been sorted out till today, so we got tired of paying British Midlands to be able to fly from Abuja to London, while the British carrier flies free of charge from London to Abuja.

Recently, they started a Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) meeting in London between Nigerian and British Authorities just before the Sallah holidays, but they told us that the meeting has been postponed indefinitely. I told my brother that the meeting was not postponed; they only want to make sure airlines are not prepared, so that no one can come for the meeting. And true to it, a few days later, one of my colleagues called to say they just told him that the meeting has been reinstated.

You see, why do we need to be doing things like this? We expose ourselves to ridicule. We want to get there without our airlines, we want to get there and do the things the way we want to do it. So whose interest are we representing? For how long do we want to behave like this, what do these people give that we cannot ignore in order to serve our country as honourable people and represent ourselves as people who have some self worth? This is the problem.

So it is not just removing the custom duties, there are a lot of other charges and if you have to bring in a brand new aircraft that costs you $96 million, by the time you pay one per cent of this, plus five per cent of other charges, you will have too much to pay for. All these other charges also need to be removed.

At what cost are you executing some of your new projects?

There are so many projects we have mentioned, and the costs are huge. We have talked about the expansion of the hangar, about the construction of a Super Hangar for the maintenance of wide body aircraft, about the setting up of the Aviation Academy in Benin. We have so many things happening and these projects will cost billions of dollars. We are going to take these projects in phases.

Can you talk about the body of the stowaway found on Arik Air undercarriage and Airport Security?

We won the award as the best security conscious airline. The award came based on the investments we have made in terms of aviation security. We have done a lot. We have acquired a lot of equipment, we have acquired a lot of personnel from Nigeria and from all over the world to make sure that we are safe as airline should be.

What has happened with the stowaway is something we need to keep talking about. When you creep into the aircraft landing gear area in order to go to a destination in Europe, you do not have any chance of surviving at all. As soon as the aircraft takes off and especially when it is the long flight that is going to last for four hours or more, you will freeze up before you get there.

Please it is important that we make this clear to all Nigerians, Nigeria is not too bad, that is why we are all living here and surviving here. It is difficult everywhere in the world. It is getting very bad in the US, the UK and everywhere. If you work as hard as our sisters and brothers are working outside Nigeria, you will make a lot of money in Nigeria.

But for people who are not well informed, they believe that once you go abroad, things are good for you and even when they are not able to get visa or get enough money to travel, they decide to go and stowaway; that does not give you any chance of survival at all. It is the fastest way to die and at this stage, we have to make it clear that this is not an option for anyone to consider no matter how desperate you may be.

Security is a continuous thing. It is a journey and not a destination. We are constantly trying to improve on the security arrangement we have in place. We have invested much on bomb detectors, narcotics and other substances detectors.

Stowaways happen. It is not for the crew to see that, because the crew do not sleep at the airport where the aircraft sleeps. After the crew have finished their work, they shot down, lock up the aircraft and they go home. We leave the aircraft to airport security.

But when these things happen what it means is that airport security needs to be improved upon. We are also considering measures on our own as an airline, that is self help measures, we have to resort to at occasions and for many things we are supposed to get services for. So we are also going to put measures in place to make sure that this doesn't reoccur.

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