As indigenous airlines spend billions of naira annually to maintain their aircraft abroad, NKEM OSUAGWU, in this write-up reports on the need for the government to revisit the plan for the construction of a national hangar to further lessen the burden on the airlines and boost the air worthiness of Nigerian registered aircraft.
Despite the initiative taken by the Federal Government to assist the indigenous airlines through the removal of import duty on aircraft and spare parts importation, analysts say the nation's airline industry still has an uphill task. This is because even though airlines are no longer required to pay such duties, they must take their aircraft abroad for heavy maintenance work in line with manufacturer's directives.
This of course is source of drain in their meager resources, which is why analysts have urged the federal government to revisit the decision to construct an aircraft maintenance hangar facility in Nigeria in order to grow the economy. This is because for several years, successive administrations have only continuously paid lip service to the issue of constructing a maintenance facility in the country that will enable airlines undertake some of the major checks they require on their aircraft within the country instead of taking them abroad resulting in huge capital expenditure that impact on their operations.
Cost of maintenance abroad
According to experts, Nigerian airlines spend over N30 billion annually to maintain their aircraft abroad, and in some cases, some of these aircraft and aircraft engines taken abroad by indigenous airlines for major checks do not return back to the country due to the inability of the airline operators in question to settle the cost of maintenance and other overheads associated with maintaining aircraft abroad.
Reports have put the worth of aircraft and aircraft engines belonging to indigenous airlines which have been abandoned at maintenance facilities abroad to about N14 billion.
Bearing the cost of maintaining aircraft abroad is becoming daunting task for indigenous airlines coupled with the value of the naira which is continuously depreciating against the dollar.
Industry analysts have said there are lots of costs incurred whenever an airline takes its aircraft or engine abroad for checks. These include actual cost of maintenance, purchase of spare parts, accommodation and feeding cost for the crew who will monitor the level and progress of work on the aircraft or engine in question among others.
Aviation Round Table (ART), President, Captain Dele Ore, lamented the inability of the federal government to establish a maintenance hangar in Nigeria, years after the idea was mooted as a major step in the continuous growth of the nation's aviation industry.
He said, "You then pay for the warehousing of the aircraft, and if they say the aircraft is ready and two days after you have not collected it, then you will have to pay for demurrages, handling of aircraft and also wellbeing of the staff that went with the aircraft. So all these expenses put together, for and aircraft that carries only 150 passengers, it means it will have to carry 250 passengers to break-even.
But then, you cannot expand the aircraft or create more seats in it. So, that is why they are losing money. Every time they fly, it means they are losing 100 passengers and yet they are full. They carry passengers but what they make is not commensurate with their operational expenses.
What is a maintenance Hangar
Engineer Zik Nwachukwu, a former aircraft Engineer with the liquidated Nigeria Airways Ltd, explained the meaning of an aircraft maintenance hangar in his article entitled, 'Standard Maintenance Hangar - A must to guarantee aircraft airworthiness in Nigeria'.
According to him, an aircraft maintenance hangar is "basically a high root, open metallic shade structure, that does not only take in the widest body aircraft, but also houses several units and departments which provide the required maintenance and spare parts. It is usually managed by a Hangar Manager who is an aeronautic engineer by training and duly licensed."
He said aircraft which have been scheduled for maintenance are usually taxied completely into the hangar where all the necessary checks, replacement of spare parts, and other repairs are carried out. He listed some key units within the hangar to include Maintenance Control Unit, Avionics, Pneumatics unit, engine unit, Airframe unit and others. Each of these units specialises in a particular aspect that has to do with the overall wellbeing of the aircraft.
Though government is expected to drive the actualisation of a National Hangar project in Nigeria, indigenous airlines are not resting on their oars as some of them have taken the initiative with plans to establish aircraft Maintenance, Repair Organisations (MROs) that will not only take care of their fleets but that of other airlines on commercial basis.
Currently, it is only two Nigerian airlines (Arik Air and Aero) that can boast of having a maintenance hangar for their aircraft fleet. Other airlines have limited what they can do in the country to line maintenance of their aircraft , usually at the ramp (air side).
Even at that, what is currently on ground in the country cannot be compared to what obtains abroad especially with world class airlines like British Airways, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Emirates Airline and others.
That is why analysts have urged that the government, while still undecided over the issue of a national hangar project should provide the necessary support for the individual airlines that have indicated willingness to invest in the area of an MRO in Nigeria.
This is because the benefit of having a world class aircraft maintenance facility in Nigeria cannot be overemphasised, especially in view of it being very vital to the development of the aviation industry in Nigeria.
According to Nwachukwu, "With a Standard Aircraft Maintenance Hangar in place, Nigeria can earn enormous foreign exchange through maintenance from foreign airlines." This is in addition to making it possible for Nigerian registered airlines to spend less in the maintenance of their aircraft without having to take their aircraft abroad.
It is on record that the woes of the liquidated national airline, Nigeria Airways, rose from the inability to pay for the maintenance of its aircraft abroad because of the drain on foreign exchange. This resulted in airline that has more than 32 aircraft deteriorating to an airline that has no serviceable aircraft, which resulted in its demise. Also, many indigenous airlines have gone the way of Nigeria Airways; with the industry having a high rate record of airline demise.
Last year, two foremost Nigerian registered airlines, Arik Air and Aero disclosed intentions to establish aircraft maintenance and overhaul facilities that will bridge the gaping hole in the nation's aviation industry. Both stressed that the success of their plan will depend on the support of the government.
Arik Air currently has a fleet of 22 new generation aircraft and operates about 120 flights daily to destinations in Nigeria and outside Nigeria. The airline understands that having a world-class aircraft maintenance facility would boost its operations. The airline during its sixth year anniversary celebration in Lagos disclosed the plan to establish an MRO in Nigeria in partnership with Lufthansa Technik, one of the foremost aircraft maintenance organisations in the world.
According to Mr. Chris Ndulue, the MRO, which the company referred to as a Super Hangar in partnership with Lufthansa Technik, would be a world class facility that can serve global airlines. Though the airline did not disclose how much this project would cost or when the construction work on the facility would commence, there is no doubt that such a facility in Nigeria is needed at this moment as the indigenous airlines struggle with the maintenance of their aircraft abroad.
He said, "The MRO we are setting up with Lufthansa is global. It is not strictly for Arik alone. I just want to make that one very clear. Lufthansa sent us to Malta; the base of Lufthansa is Hamburg, but they have this type of facility they want to build for us here in Nigeria; they have it in Budapest; they have it in Asia.
"What we made very clear to Lufthansa is that we want an MRO that will be global. Someone can come from Philippines, some can come from France, but one problem that we have, which I don't know, except government takes a very strong step; we are looking for NGs- next generation aircraft. We are thinking about the A330s; we are not thinking about B737=200. We won't maintain all that, but we may maintain B737=400," said the Chairman of Arik Air.
He also said that the establishment of the facility was largely dependent on the support of government and the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), adding that Lufthansa gave conditions that must be met by the Federal Government before the facility would be established.
Also, Aero's former managing director, Captain Akin George, last year announced the plan by the airline to construct a commercial maintenance facility to further boost the airline's revenue and operations.
The airline which had the approval of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) as an aircraft maintenance organisation announced its intention to expand its existing hangar to enable it meet the requirements for aircraft maintenance, including third party maintenance of aircraft.
George had said, "With the certification of Aero as an AMO (by NCAA), Aero intends to expand existing hangar to enable it meet requirements of aircraft maintenance work including third-party work, provide employment opportunities, training and staff enhancement programmes for employees."
There has been no clear cut government policy on the establishment of a national hangar, even though industry analysts allude to the fact that some government functionaries had in the past made statements to the fact that government would establish aircraft maintenance and repair facilities in the country. Unfortunately, no administration has so far taken a decisive step that will result in the establishment of a national hangar project that will meet the needs of the airlines.
However, recent developments in the country especially the high profile aircraft accidents that have claimed the lives of eminent Nigerians have always brought to the front burner the need to have such a facility in place. For instance, the last June 3 aircraft accident involving the Dana Air MD83 aircraft in Lagos resulted in low patronage for the airlines, as the accident raised issues concerning proper maintenance of aircraft by indigenous airlines in Nigeria.
However, there is no gainsaying the fact that aviation is witnessing growth in Nigeria, with the increase in the number of individuals who now prefer to travel by air. The government also, has been putting structures in place to ensure that the sector contributes meaningfully to development of the country, as it opens up regions and connects individuals and businesses to the global markets among others.