The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has defended the grounding of the Bombardier - BD 700-1A11 (Global Express) aircraft, with registration number N565RS, operated by the Rivers State Government, saying the action was taken in accordance with safety procedures and the law that governs Nigeria's civil aviation regulations.
NCAA Director of Airworthiness Standards, Benedict Adeyileka, who spoke to THISDAY in a telephone interview yesterday, explained that as a foreign registered aircraft, the clearance certification that allowed it to operate in Nigeria had expired.
Adeyileka, who likened the clearance certification to a visa, said an individual with an expired visa to a country is deemed an illegal immigrant if he is still in the country after the expiration of his visa.
He also dismissed speculations that the decision was politically motivated, adding that the agency was not concerned with who owned the aircraft when the decision was being taken as its focus was on the documentation.
But the state government said yesterday that NCAA had not formally notified it of the grounding of the aircraft, 24 hours after the decision was taken.
Adeyileka said the reason the law allows the aircraft 48 hours of grace after the expiration of the clearance certificate is for the airplane to be moved out of the country "because it is deemed illegal if it continues to stay in the country and will be grounded."
He added that it was the person that registered the aircraft that should decide the time the plane stayed in the country.
"The aircraft is owned by an operator in the US. The owner said this is the period of time we want to spend in Nigeria. It is like when you are travelling overseas and you obtained a visa.
"Once that visa expires, you are an illegal immigrant. That aircraft is an illegal immigrant so it had to be grounded," he said.
He explained that the Rivers State Government has another aircraft, which is registered in Nigeria, noting that a foreign registered aircraft could be allowed to operate in the country if the procedure to allow it to fly in the Nigerian airspace was followed.
Refuting allegations of political persecution over the grounding of the aircraft in which the state governor, Mr. Chibuike Amaechi, who is perceived to be at loggerheads with President Goodluck Jonathan, was travelling when the plane was barred, Adeyileka said in taking the decision, NCAA was not looking at the owner of the aircraft but the regulation and documentation.
"To ensure that operational safety is maintained, people should obey the law. We did not know that the aircraft was his. We don't look for the owner of aircraft; we look at regulations.
"If he (the governor) wanted to travel overseas, he would need special clearance. We allow foreign registered aircraft that is leased and operates under AOC (Air Operator Certificate) but the documentation must be clear; it must not operate illegally.
"The governor is not the operator or the owner of that aircraft. I am the director of Airworthiness Standards, not director of politics," he said.
However, industry players have called on the regulatory agency to wake up to its duties, noting that it was the controversy over the grounding of the Rivers' plane in Akure, the Ondo State capital, that prompted NCAA to examine the documentation of the aircraft following which it was discovered that it had expired.
They warned that Nigeria might lose its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Category 1 Safety Status and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) certification if the present laxity continued.
An industry operator called on the NCAA to examine other aircraft operating in the Nigerian airspace and expressed worry that the Rivers State Government was able to maintain a foreign registration aircraft that was supposed to be owned by the state government.
He said if NCAA examined other aircraft, it would discover that many of them have expired documents.
But the state government claimed it was unaware of the decision by the NCAA, saying the agency was yet to formally notify it of its decision.
Commissioner for Information and Communications, Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, told reporters in Port Harcourt yesterday that government was awaiting formal communication from the regulatory agency before it could speak further on the matter.
"As we speak, all I have is information that I have gleaned from the media. All we have as a government is that information. No formal communication has reached us in Rivers State Government.
"We believe that it will be best that we await formal communication from the regulatory agency. Just to say that all our documentation is in place. And to also say that as a responsible sub-national, we have complied with the norms that regulate aviation business in Nigeria," she said.
Semenitari explained that the state formally applied to the Minister of Aviation, Ms. Stella Oduah, for the delivery of the aircraft from overseas and the minister received that application on September 12, 2012.
"We have applied formally to the Honourable Minister of Aviation for the import licence. That application was received in her office on September 2012.
"So we believe that all of the procedures have been complied with as best as we know. However, we do understand that the regulatory agencies are best equipped to tell us if they think there is any lapse and we will expect that the communication will come to us formally and not through the mass media.
"We believe that we are obliged to comply with all the regulations that govern the aviation business in Nigeria. We are a responsible sub-national and we will not defy the regulatory agencies," she said.