The authorities should investigate the breach of the airspace in addition to the sanctions
The recent violation of Nigeria’s airspace by a UK-based Flairjet, which was carrying out a commercial charter services, is a serious security breach that the authorities must investigate thoroughly. Despite claiming to be conducting evacuation exercise, the aircraft, a 13-seater Legacy 600, arrived Nigeria with passengers and was scheduled to operate flights to UK and Spain. Even though the airline had been sanctioned, questions must be asked of Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) officials so as to ascertain if there were complicity in what could compromise the health of our country at a time of global pandemic.
However, there is a need to make a distinction between the private airline that abused its permit for humanitarian flights and the intention of foreign airlines to resume commercial flights. The former is an infringement and sanction had been imposed. The latter is part of a global plan by major airlines to resume international flights all over the world. That plan presupposes that different countries will have lifted the ban on flights by June. No flights have taken place yet. Nigerian authorities need to be busy keeping track of international trends on reopening of the world economy, not asserting some meaningless authority. Our preventive measures on Covid-19 should be commensurate with our rate of infection and fatality, not knee-jerk overkills.
On the violation of the airspace, we understand that members of the flight crew have also been quarantined. Although the Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika said the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) had started investigation into the incident, many Nigerians were aghast that a flight could be given clearance to land in Nigeria under such deception, especially under a locked airspace due to COVID-19 pandemic. A thorough investigation of the airline, the aircraft and crew should have been carried out before the flight was cleared to come into Nigeria. Meanwhile, it is yet to be ascertained at what point it was discovered that the aircraft was operating charter services and NCAA was now mandated to carry out investigation that it ought to have done before the aircraft was allowed into the country.
Since the closure of Nigeria’s airspace on 23 March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into the country, there have been series of evacuation flights as nationals from different parts of the world return to their home countries. But industry observers are of the view that a 13-passenger aircraft couldn’t have been detailed to conduct humanitarian evacuation, except for medical emergencies. That should have aroused suspicion. Industry stakeholders also observe that even if there were a precedent where such size of aircraft owned by a private company was deployed for such operation, the need to carry out thorough investigation shouldn’t have been negated. This is because since the beginning of the lockdown, largely wide-body aircraft have been airlifting evacuees in the exercise; so it is a rarity for such a luxury jet to be used to conduct evacuation operation.
Besides, protocols demand that the airline should have had a representative in Nigeria, which usually helps to facilitate a foreign airline non-scheduled operation to receive approvals and necessary clearance. Nothing has indicated that this particular airline has such representative in Nigeria. This has supported the argument in some quarters that Nigeria’s airspace is porous. Even under a lockdown and strict restrictions, a foreign registered aircraft could use deception and secure approval and clearance to land with a leeway of 48 hours.
We must also think seriously about how to reopen the Nigerian economy to the world. That imperative requires more serious thinking and planning.