Nigeria: Indigenous Pilots Groan Over Depleting Airlines, Fleet Size

The wing of an airplane used to illustrate story
28 April 2019

The decreasing number of domestic airlines and their limited fleet size is giving indigenous pilots a cause for concern, with the number of unemployed pilots at 600.

Major commercial airlines operating in the country today are about eight carriers:. They are Air Peace, Arik Air, Aero Contractors, Medview, Dana Air, Max Air, Azman and Overland, and most of them are functioning with small aircraft fleet size. The situation is further exacerbated by the infiltration of foreign pilots who also struggle with local pilots for job placements in the few airlines available.

Speaking on the matter, the president of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Comrade Abednego Galadima, who gave the jobless pilots' figure in an exclusive chat with LEADERSHIP Sunday, said that something needs to be done quickly to address the situation.

Comrade Galadima said that NAAPE, under his leadership, had already approached the government with solutions to address the high rate of pilot unemployment in the country.

He said, "I have written a proposal to the government where we can encourage these General Aviation people, particularly, Nigeria College of Aviation Technology (NCAT) and others, by giving them something like special subvention to enable them buy fuel, so that these young pilots can build hours to make them more usable, more marketable and ready for the job."

"Our position is that you can give incentives to general aviation or even some of the airlines so that they recruit unemployed pilots. The number is now 600 or so unemployed. It is a problem because once a pilot is carrying a licence without a job, he goes out of currency. And once you go out of currency, it becomes a problem. It is a problem both at the economic side and government side. It is not good for the industry."

Galadima further noted that the issue of expatriate quota is another major challenge in the industry, stressing that there is no airline in Nigeria today that does not have expatriate staff. The NAAPE president stated that airlines prefer to bring expatriate pilots to fly for them because those ones are ready-made. He, however, expressed surprise that the expatriates in turn make use of the local pilots in one way or the other.

Explaining why young pilots find it difficult to secure jobs in Nigeria, he said, "When you are talking about pilots especially for the airlines, the value is rated with hours and that translates to their experience. And I hope you know every pilot is type-rated on a particular aircraft that he or she is authorised to fly.

"So in an event, you are just an ab initio pilot. Usually the number of hours they have is from 250 hours and you don't have a job, it becomes very difficult for you to begin to bridge the gap. And that is why I have written a proposal to the government where we can encourage these general aviation people, particularly NCAT and some of these general aviation to give them something like special subvention to enable them buy fuel so that these our young pilots can build hours to make them more usable, more marketable and ready for the job.

"Another issue is that of abuse of expatriate quota, now abuse of executive order no. 5. You find airlines bringing expatriate pilots to fly for them because those ones are ready. The airlines don't have any obligation to train Nigerians; they are not given incentives to do that. So they keep bending the rules and, sometimes, unfortunately, even people in aviation and authority are kidding."

Galadima applauded the minister of aviation, Hadi Sirika, for coming in to salvage the situation, adding that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), too, has equally risen up to the occasion even though there are still lapses.

He said the idea of a looming dearth of pilots in the future is as a result of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) projection of passengers growth, adding that "now that air transport is gaining acceptance, that is why they are clamouring for low-budget airlines so that people can fly easily and at less cost. It is a global projection.

In his view, former president of NAAPE, Engr. Isaac Balami observed that the disparity between foreign pilots and local ones has reduced drastically in recent times.

Balami, who is also a member of the National Carrier Committee told LEADERSHIP Sunday that such challenges were part of the issues treated at the committee level and that they had already submitted their recommendations to the government.

He said, "The truth of the matter is that just before I left as president of NAAPE, the aviation minister and the minister of Interior and the Immigration Controller General and all of us, we had a committee where three members represented NAAPE. We had a committee with NCAA, aviation ministry and other stakeholders. We had a good report which was submitted. Since then, the minister has been making efforts to communicate with airlines. You will agree with me that the disparity between foreign pilots and local ones has reduced drastically".

"There is a serious reduction. The challenge is that we have more pilots that are Nigerians coming up now. Most of our airlines are also down. Arik and Aero are down compared to what it used to be. They have low fleet size. Azman and Medview are also struggling with low fleet. So there is always these defects. But I think what is more important is the fact that the airlines are beginning to understand that it is even better to employ Nigerians. The only issue is the issue of bond that the airlines have been struggling with. Most of the airlines I spoke with have shown that when they employ a Nigeria pilot, the belief is that he or she would soon leave. But when I spoke with the Nigerian pilots, they told me that when they work in a good working environment, they retire there. So what will make one leave a good working environment. There could be a balance and it is also good for the aircraft engineers to keep to their words. The operators need support because they are not making profit and they are yet to get the desired intervention from government that they asked for over the years. When I was with Aero Contractors, about 8 Boeing 727 were operating at fuel cost of N800 million at about N200 per litre. It is not sustainable," Balami added.

Assuring that there is hope for the aviation industry, Balami stated that what the minister had recommended was in line with the recommendation of the National Carrier Committee, which is capable of moving the industry forward.

"What we recommended was not just based on the national carrier but we also looked at all other airlines, both the ones in the oil and gas and aviation and how they can benefit from it. It cut across world-class catering at a subsidized rate, trainings, refresher courses, type-rating, maintenance and many other issues. If these things are in place, our airlines will compete with any other airline in the world. With the current condition, give the National Carrier $10 billion and 50 brand new aircraft; after 10 years, it will not sustain them. I believe the aviation minister agreed with us and he has made the same provisions known to this administration. We believe something will be done about it soon", he said.

On his part, an aviation consultant and former corporate affairs manager of Nigeria Airways, Chris Aligbe, said there is no way airlines in the country will completely do away with foreign pilots.

Aligbe pointed out that, with new aircraft orders and the type of equipment brought into the country, there is the need for the operators to utilise pilots who have the core competence until the local pilots are able to fly those aircraft.

"You know, not many airlines are flying now. But because of the aircraft Air Peace is acquiring, there are no local pilots to fly them. For example, they will still use foreign pilots for the B777 they have just acquired. The airline will surely use them before they transit to local ones. In terms of employing local pilots, we can still give it to Air Peace because he is trying. He has been employing a lot of local pilots. However, it is not enough to absorb all the pilots. That is why we need more airlines, whether national carrier or domestic. We need them to absorb our pilots and engineers. But the whole thing is that some certain aircraft we bring, the core competence are not here yet. It requires you to have foreign pilots. For the local pilots, they have to transit after type-rating and trials till a time they are able to fly such aircraft", Aligbe said.

To the secretary general of the Association of Nigerian Aviation Professionals, Comrade Abdul Rasaq Saidu, the disparity between local and foreign pilots in terms of employment in the country has to do with corruption.

Comrade Saidu wondered how a foreigner could enter the country and begin to fly as a pilot without endorsement from the Nigeria Immigration Services (NIS).Saidu said the onus was on NAAPE to agitate the government for the welfare of their members.

"There is no way a foreigner will get a job without a work permit. Some of the immigration officers collude with the foreign pilots who either come as visitors or just for vacation only to wrangle their way to secure jobs as pilots," he said.

Interestingly, at the global level, the situation is at variance with what is on ground in Nigeria. In some countries, the issue of unemployed pilots is not a major concern but there are fears that there would be scarcity of manpower in that area, in years to come.

Recently, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) warned the world's airlines of a severe pilot shortage unless the industry and governments work together to change training and qualification practices.

The body also issued a new estimate that the industry may need 17,000 new pilots annually due to expected industry growth and retirements.

IATA director-general and CEO, Giovanni Bisignani, while speaking to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) International Safety Forum recently, said: "Increasing the retirement age to 65 will help but it can't be the only solution. It's time to ring the warning bell. We must re-think pilot training and qualification to further improve safety and increase training capacity."

Explaining that pilot training has not changed in 60 years, Bisignani made it clear that the industry is concerned that there are no global standards for training concepts or regulation, adding that IATA is still making considerations with an emphasis on flight hours.

According to Bisignani, IATA supports the competency-based approach of multi-crew pilot licensing (MPL) training programmes. Unlike traditional pilot training, MPL focuses from the beginning on training for multi-pilot cockpit working conditions. It also makes better use of simulator technology. Europe was among the first regions to adopt MPL and Australia and China are moving ahead with implementation.

In addition to that, IATA also launched the IATA Training and Qualification Initiative (ITQI) to support a global approach to MPL implementation.

IATA's concerns were recently re-echoed by the rector/chief executive officer of NCAT, Zaria, Capt Abdulsalami Mohammed when he observed that there is going to be severe shortage of pilots in the coming years due to aircraft orders and the ageing workforce.

Capt Abdulsalami, therefore, stated that there is a need for stakeholders to start early to look for lasting solutions to address the gaps, adding the NCAT has already taken an approach to tackle the situation.

In Nigeria, for example, he made it clear that NCAT now has a team that is responsible for this, stating that the team reaches out to secondary school students with the aim of catching them young.

"We are starting it at the secondary school level. We have teams that go out for career talks in secondary schools and later this year, we intend to have an open day, which will be dedicated to secondary school students and they will be opened to a lot of opportunities in the sector", the rector said.

Abdulsalami, however, made it clear that the issue of unemployment of pilots is not peculiar to Nigeria.

He said that with ICAO recognising the problem of ageing workforce in aviation industry, it has come up with a new set of aviation professionals called Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP) programme which NCAT had already signed up to.

NGAP, he said, is an initiative launched by ICAO to ensure that enough qualified and competent aviation professionals are available to operate, manage and maintain the future international air transport system.

On the use of expatriate pilots, Abdulsalami said it was out of necessity.

"The government has said it several times, that as long as a qualified Nigerian is here on ground, it would not approve a foreigner to do the job in Nigeria. For instance, if an airline introduces new equipment, there may not be local pilots to operate that equipment and, as a stop-gap, you have to bring in qualified people anywhere you can get them to come and start utilising the aircraft.

"For instance, Air Peace bought a number of Embraer 45 and, before then, very few Embraer 45 were flying in Nigeria. This means that very few Nigerians had that type-rating. A number of that aircraft were parked because we had no pilots. So, the airline had to bring a number of foreigners to fly the planes till such a time their own people they were training are qualified to take over. It is a common practice in the industry," he said..

NAF To Manufacture Made-In-Nigeria Aircraft

In line with the federal government's policy to promote local content, the Nigerian Air Force has, in collaboration with other partners, commenced the production of the first ever made-in-Nigeria aircraft.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo disclosed this in his address at the NAF Research and Development competition and exhibition at the Eagle Square, Abuja.

Osinbajo, who was represented by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, said the administration would continue to encourage and support meaningful civil-military research programmes towards making Nigeria's Armed Forces more self-reliant.

Commending the Air Force, he said the military all over the world, aside their traditional role of defending their nations from external aggression and maintaining territorial integrity, are renowned for their pioneering efforts in revolutionary researches and breakthrough discoveries in various areas.

"It is in view of the foregoing that I want to specially commend the Nigerian Air Force for the efforts being made at harnessing the available research and development potential, especially in the military aviation sector.

"I have been a keen admirer of the Nigerian Air Force, having been following the great strides it has so far attained as a Service.

"I recollect that in February 2018, the Nigerian Air Force was able to induct into the service an indigenous Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.

"I am equally aware of the efforts in collaboration with other partners to produce the first ever made-in-Nigeria aircraft at the Air Force Research and Development Centre in Kaduna," he said

Prof Osinbajo noted that the Nigerian Armed Forces have been confronting the nation's current multifaceted internal security challenges.

"In a bid to reposition the Armed Forces to better cope with those challenges, our administration has made the modernisation, re-equipping and continuous training of the Nigerian Armed Forces a top priority," he said.

According to him, the resources required to realise the full potential of the Armed Forces are limited in view of the competing demands from other sectors, however the government of Nigeria will continue to do its best to sustain the current tempo of development.

He therefore called on all stakeholders to embark on fruitful collaborations and joint partnerships to fund more research and development activities in the country.

"To consolidate on these modest achievements, I wish to appeal to other public and private organisations to hold this sort of exhibition that will promote research and development efforts.

"In line with our policy to promote local content, I would like to assure you that this administration shall encourage and support all meaningful civil-military research programmes towards making our Armed Forces more self-reliant," he said.

In his remarks, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar said the Nigerian Air Force placed emphasis on Research and Development as a means of building indigenous technological capacity.

"It is gratifying to note that our strategy fits into the focus of the Federal Government which places emphasis in promoting local content, home-grown technology and innovation as principal means of improving the nation's foreign exchange earnings," he said

He explained that the Air Force Research and Development Centre was established to conduct research into aerospace and armament needs of the Air Force, adding that the centre was also tasked with coordinating existing Research and Development cells in all Nigerian Air Force units.

He added that the NAF had partnered with and continued to nurture its relationship with selected Nigerian universities and research institutes with which it has signed various Memoranda of Understanding.

"All these are in consonance with my vision to reposition the Nigerian Air Force into a Service that focuses on using local competencies to sustain operations efficiency and effectiveness by promoting "strategic partnerships with Ministries, Departments and Agencies for enhanced Research and Development".

He thanked the President for his support towards the service, "It was under the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari that, last year, we inducted our Unmanned Aerial Vehicle nicknamed "TSAIGUMI" as part of our resolve to promote innovation and enhance self-reliance.

"I am proud to announce that the unmanned aerial vehicle, which was designed and developed by Nigerian Air Force aerospace engineers, was aimed at enhancing NAF's Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities.

"This effort has helped the Service to consolidate on the gains made and begin to look at other areas relating to the manufacture of hexacopter and aircraft ammunition which will greatly enhance our efforts at combating some of the internal security challenges facing our nation," the air chief said.

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