Industrial unrest looms in the country's aviation sector courtesy of the vagaries of the COVID-19 pandemic, with at least two of the domestic airlines embarking on operational downsizing, including drastic cuts in jobs and remunerations.
Recently the country's biggest airline, Air Peace, laid off dozens of its staff including about 70 pilots, along with graduated wage cuts of between 0 - 40% for the retained staff.
Following the lead of Air Peace was Bristow Helicopters which also laid off about 100 pilots and engineers, after what it claimed was an interface with the Nigerian Association of Airline Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), in respect of facilitating mutually acceptable redundancy remediation packages for the affected staff.
Meanwhile, indications are rife that other airlines in the industry are contemplating measures including laying off staff and others, to contain the vagaries of the pandemic, if such do not ease soon.
However, the job cuts by the two airlines have met with significant resistance from NAAPE working in league with the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), along with United Labour Congress (ULC).
The union had issued a two-week ultimatum to the airlines, which expires on Friday, August 14, 2020, to recall the sacked workers, or face industrial action.
Speaking to journalists last week, the National President of NAAPE, Galadima Abednego, called on the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to prevail on domestic airlines to stop the sacking of pilots and engineers on the pretext of COVID-19.
To buttress his case, he cited the manner in which the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), prevailed on banks to halt the sacking of workers on the basis of COVID-19 pandemic.
The NAAPE stand is based on what it referred to as the questionable grounds for the sack, as the airlines were operating critical services to a complement of essential service providers all through the COVID-19 lockdown and therefore suffered no significant revenue shortfalls to justify the drastic job cuts.
As for Bristow Helicopters, NAAPE has the additional issue of discriminatory practices by the company in favour of foreign pilots and engineers to the disadvantage of its Nigerian employees.
Against the challenges facing the global aviation industry which have also permeated the Nigerian sector, the face-off between the airlines and the labour front constitutes a matter that requires urgent attention by the government.
This contention is informed by several factors including the strategic significance of the aviation sector in the Nigerian economy, as well as the unmistakable challenges imposed on it by the incidence of COVID-19 pandemic.
With the sudden onset of the pandemic in the early part of the year, and the attendant, unprecedented global ban on both local and international travels, the aviation industry both in Nigeria and globally was one of the worst-hit.
In this context is the projection by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that most airlines are expected to cut jobs in the next 12 months, in order to survive.
The association further advised governments around the world to provide lifelines for their aviation sectors, given the pivotal role it plays in their economies.
For the Nigerian aviation sector, the position of IATA remains most significant, especially when viewed against the state of affairs in it before and during COVID-19.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nigerian aviation sector was not in the best of conditions.
Its status was compromised by a cocktail of weaknesses such as lack of coherent aviation policy, faulty management practices, decaying facilities, loose security cover for the airports and their installations as well as poor accident prevention and management protocols.
The situation made business forays into the sector almost suicidal for the operators, even with the interminable failure by government to fulfil its numerous promises.
It is against such a backdrop that the government needs to intervene in order to induce the parties to meet each other halfway.
A typical option is the example of British Airways (BA) where the pilots' association negotiated with the operator to skip job cuts in favour of wage cuts, thereby reducing the loss of over 1,255 jobs to only 270.
This option can be facilitated by the government in the circumstances.