Deputy Managing Director and Head of Flight Operations, Arik Air, Captain Ado Sanusi, said Ebola may shrink the economy of many West African countries. Sanusi, who spoke to Chinedu Eze, also called on government to step up safety and security infrastructure at the airports
The way the Ebola disease is going, it is likely that if it is not stopped now some international airlines will begin to cancel flights to West Africa. What do you think will be the implication?
Economically it will have very bad impact. You remember Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in the Far East and the impact on small airlines. In fact, some airlines had to go under and some had to seek government support. If it is not controlled, it will lead to the same situation. But for airlines to say they will stop flying to Africa will be a drastic and extreme measure to take. They can reduce or cancel flights to the countries where there is outbreak of the disease already and the keyword there is outbreak. Yes, you need to contain the outbreak to make sure it is under control. And there is a system out in place to ensure that it is under control.
What will be the situation of air transport in those countries some airlines have cancelled their flights to?
This will further shrink their economy. There will be negative impact on the country's economy. This will include everything; not only the airlines, commerce and other things, but even the aviation support industry will be affected. You are talking about the airport, the catering, handling companies, the airlines, oil marketers that are supplying Jet A1 to them. It will affect the entire economy of that sub sector. We will see a reduction in the countries that are affected.
You don't think the Ebola spread will grow bigger than this?
I do not think it will grow bigger than this because the steps being taken by the governments of these affected countries, including our government is a step in the right direction. That means they are trying to curtail the outbreak. They want to make sure that there are no new cases being in other countries and in the countries where there is outbreak. With that and with the support of World Health Organisation (WHO) and with the international aids that are coming to these countries, I believe that in the next few weeks, there will be negative economic impact to the countries affected.
What are you losing by stopping your operations to Sierra Leone and Liberia?
I cannot put figures to it but we are losing a lot of revenue. We are losing revenue because of daily flights. We have about four flights to Liberia and about three flights to Freetown and we were connecting Ghana with Freetown. We were also connecting Ghana with Monrovia and Banjul, so there are a lot of economic activities that are going on within the West Africa countries, which now is not being done. Of course there is economic loss there. Movement will be affected ad restricted.
When you started operating to Dubai many Nigerians are happy that an indigenous carrier will have an inroad into the Middle East. From your first experience so far, what is your evaluation?
Well, our Dubai route which was launched on the 28 of July was very successful. We are very happy about the performance of the route and we expect the route to grow. We expect the route to be as profitable as most of the routes that we are flying. We are confident that our product is a very good product. I believe that Nigerians and all other people that travel to that part of the world will enjoy the product. We are extremely happy with the first few flights that we have done and the bookings we have seen are very strong bookings. Our strategy is to work with our partners to make sure we sell a product that is not point to point, but a product that can also expand beyond the Middle East. We are considering strategic partnership that will enhance our product.
Do you think the old cut throat rivalry of the past when the defunct Virgin Nigeria Airways was forced out of the route will come up again, especially now that more airlines from the Middle East are operating to Nigeria?
It is in the interest of the carriers from the Middle East and Nigeria, whether it is Emirates, Qatar or Etihad, or Aero, Med View or Arik to cooperate with each other, so that they can have point beyond their point of entry. For example, if Mediview decides to operate to Abu Dhabi it is good they have cooperation to go point beyond their entry point; the same with Arik; the same with First Nation. It is good for Emirates to have point beyond Lagos because Emirates cannot go to Owerri; Emirates cannot go to Calabar and the rest. So it is good to have point beyond. So cooperation among airlines worldwide is noble idea.
Government doesn't seem to be supporting the aviation industry, especially in the development of strong airlines that will help create jobs, develop skills and deepen the technical aspect of the industry?
I have always said it that government must have a deliberate policy to support the airlines. They must have a deliberate policy that will support, encourage, grow and nourish the airlines that we have in the country and protect them. You cannot only support without protecting them. You have to protect these airlines to make sure they are doing very well and the competition out there is very fierce so government support and government protection is vital for the survival of the airlines. Because of the demise of Nigeria Airways, government must look and see how it can put in place system for manpower development. They must put deliberate policy to boost manpower development.
What do you think is retarding aviation development in Nigeria and what do you expect the new Minister to do in order to help grow the sector?
I think what the new Minister should put most of his strength is in improving safety in the aviation industry by putting most of the safety critical infrastructure in place and these include good runways, good runway lights, good tarmac, good navigational aids and other necessary things. Then he should also put in place a conducive environment for international, well recognised maintenance hangar.
Now you talked about safety critical facilities, how many runways do we have that airplanes cannot land in the night because they do not have airfield lighting?
Well, I can tell you the ones that close early (because there is no runway lighting). In the North we have Yola airport which closes very early, Gombe closes early, but those might be for security reasons. Then, Calabar airport closes early, Uyo closes early, Benin closes early, Osubi closes early, Asaba closes early, Owerri closes early and Enugu closes early. So the only airports that open 24 hours a day are Abuja airport, Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano airports.
What is the economic effect of not being able to operate into these airports beyond day time, looking at the aircraft that you have?
We have not done the study, but I know they will be doing the study somewhere. I know you lose a lot in economic value if you do not optimise the aircraft that you have. When the airports are open from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm, it means you only have 12 hours to operate the aircraft into such airports and you can only operate daylight operation, which means it is limiting, especially with the problem we are having with Jet A1 now. When it comes late to the airport because of the traffic gridlock in Apapa, it gives rise to delay of flights and when the flight does not leave in time you will be forced to cancel flight because you cannot operate to the airports in the night. When this happens passengers will become agitated and accuse you of deliberately delaying the flight so that you will cancel it. It is important that airfield lighting is installed at these airports. It is especially more important to us that have network of flights from about 1010 to 115 a day.
You talked about aviation fuel. It has always been a problem in Nigeria. It is either scarce or the price is very high. What is your advice to government in order to solve this problem?
Lagos alone takes about 70 million litres a month of Jet A1. All these 70 million litres are trucked from Apapa. So if you do the math it is about 300 trucks a day and each truck contains about 43,000 to 44,000 litres, which makes the total litres over 4 million a day. On the short term, we should try to open the jetties so that ships with the product can berth at other places rather than that particular one place that is chocked in Apapa. In the medium term we should think about bringing down the prices by piping the product to the airport. We should use the pipeline from the port right to the common user hydrant.
There are suggestions that the federal government can dedicate Warri refinery for the production of Jet A1. That, they say, will make the product always available and also lower the prices. Do you think this is possible? It is possible because government can do anything it set its mind to do. If they make Warri refinery to produce Jet A1 it will be good. They should also make sure they transport the product to the airports where they are needed and done in a timely manner. This is possible and it will bring down the price.
In terms of safety and security do you think that a stowaway can still get into your aircraft and hide in the wheel well as it happened last year at Benin airport?
Yes it can happen again if an airport is not fenced; if the security and perimeter fences are not in place and if they are in place but are not being monitored, the fences can be breached. The security of the airport lies with the Federal Airports Authority if Nigeria (FAAN). Do I think our airports are safe? Yes, they are safe but there is room for improvement. There are things we can do to ensure that the security level has increased, especially in the area of patrolling the airports because of stowaways and the rest.
Some people are saying that government should have provided these safety critical facilities before remodelling the airport terminals. Is that your position too?
There are safety critical items that need to be there at the airports. These are basic things that need to be present at any airport in the country. An international airport should have runway lights, instrument landing system, should be secured and well fenced. Also an international airport terminal building should also have some basic things. So remodelling or not, we should have the basic things first. When we have the basics you start thinking of what to add there. We must have the basic safety critical equipment at the airport to even start thinking of operating into that airport.
You must have a basic, standard terminal building before allowing passengers to enter that building. I don't know whether studies have been done to know whether those basics are there in the remodelled airports. There is no reason for comparison. I think there should be basic things first. So if all basics of safety critical items are in place and if all basic things that are supposed to be in airport terminal is in place, then we start thinking of what we want to model it into. But the basic must be there.
Do you believe that it will be more successful for government to establish flag carriers by supporting existing airlines instead of establishing a national carrier?
Governments of nowadays are trying to move away from establishing airlines. Everybody is trying to privatise their airlines. So I don't think it is fashionable for government to establish a carrier; but what I do believe is that there is no government, whether you have your own carrier, whether you have a carrier that is owned by the public, no government will allow those carriers, either owned by itself or owned by its people, to suffer and die. Government would rather protect them, encourage them and allow them to grow and compete in a very good atmosphere and then try and make sure that jobs are created. So whatever is the nature of the ownership of the airline whether by government or by private individuals of that country, what is important is for that government to protect these airlines owned by it or by individuals.