The Director General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Captain Musa Nuhu, in a recent zoom interview with Aviation journalists advised domestic airlines to involve the regulatory body, the Ministry of Aviation and also the Nigerian embassy in that country each time they go to negotiate services, to ensure reciprocitory measures are applied because every government will want to protect its indigenous airlines. He debunked the belief that the NCAA suffers interference from the government but explained that NCAA has autonomy in terms of regulations but that the NCAA cannot totally remove itself from the Ministry of Aviation because it is responsible for policy development for the Industry which the NCAA in turn implements through its regulations.
NCAA attained autonomy in November 2006, but most Industry analysts still believe that the Agency is still attached to the apron string of the Ministry of Aviation, how can NCAA achieve full autonomy?
Yes, NCAA has autonomy in terms of regulations but NCAA cannot totally remove itself from the Ministry of Aviation. The Ministry is responsible for policy development for the Industry and we implement those policies through our regulations. So we must have a line of communication and consultations with the Ministry and also if you look at the organisational structure of NCAA, we have the Minister, the Board and then the Director General, so we cannot totally isolate ourselves from the Ministry but l can assure you that in terms of implementing regulations and otherwise, NCAA is the only body that is doing that and we are doing that without any sort of interference with the Ministry.
There are some regulations that without the political support of the Ministry, it will be very difficult to implement them. In the past, when aircraft are grounded, big men went over above the Ministry, they even went to the Villa and they had those decisions taken by NCAA reversed but this time around, it is not so. We implement our regulations irrespective of who is involved and the support of the Minister, the political support has made our life easier within our regulations. So anybody that wants us to divorce completely from the Ministry is not being realistic, it is Ministry of Aviation. Aviation goes beyond NCAA; we have other public service providers like the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NIMET), Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) and Nigeria College of Aviation Technology (NCAT). Then the private sector, airline operators and ground handlers are all under the Ministry, we regulate them, so there are some connections between us and the Ministry.
You cannot say because we are independent in implementing regulations, we mustn’t have some relationship with the Ministry. It happens everywhere in the world. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has some connections with the Department of Transportation. What is important is for the regulatory body to be able to do its statutory responsibility of effective oversight of the system without interference and that, we are doing.
NCAA has done well in safety regulation of the Industry, but has fared poorly in economic regulation of the Industry especially the airline subsector, how do you intend to address this challenge and what is the financial health of our airlines?
The airlines not only in Nigeria, it is a global thing in the airline Industry, the profit margin is very minimal, if you make five per cent (5%) profit margin in the business, you are considered to have done excellently well, but however, with the COVID-19 and the difficulties, airlines financial positions are not the best. It is a global phenomenon and there are so many other issues that affect the financial health of airlines that is neither in the control of the Ministry of Aviation nor in the control of the Civil Aviation regulatory body. For instance, the provision of foreign exchange doesn’t come from us. If a country’s foreign earning goes down, the Central Bank prioritises, and you can understand due to the lack of maintenance organisations in Nigeria and pilot recurrent training institutions in Nigeria they have to go outside to do these and that entails a lot of foreign currencies, so it is not easy. Also is Jet A1 that is a major factor that airlines have been having difficulties with, sometimes we see its induced scarcity and escalatory price, so there are factors that affect the health of the airlines that are not in our direct control. The Ministry has tried, it went to the Central Bank when this government came on board, Nigeria owed foreign airlines about 600 million dollars in arrears, the Minister through consultations was able to get that off our back and all the foreign airlines were paid. We visited the NNPC to see what kind of arrangement can be made for the production of Jet A1 and in addition, is the interest rate factor; when airlines go borrowing at a very high interest rate which we know is very high in Nigeria. If my profit margin is 5%, explain to me if l take a loan at 20 per cent, how I can break even and pay it and make profit. These are the micro and macro factors that affect the health of the airlines. We try through our economic regulations to do the financial audits of the airlines and advise them where we see areas of economic difficulties and see how they can be tackled.
One of the things we are doing is to really strengthen the function of the economic regulation through more training of the staff of the directorate. As you are aware, we are having some restructuring going on, it is to reposition the regulatory body to be able to carry out its responsibilities in a more effective and efficient manner.
The federal government seems to want to implement the Orosanye Report on restructuring of government agencies and departments and Aviation agencies are affected by this recommendation. In the sector, the report suggested merging NCAA (regulator) with NAMA (service provider), what’s your take on this?
I read the report in the newspapers the same way you did, nothing has informed of any merger, l have asked from the Ministry and there have been no confirmation. I understand this is an old report done over 10 years ago; somebody just sat down and brought it out. I am not aware of any merger between NCAA and any agency and I cannot comment on what seem to me an unofficial matter, and by the way, in the US, FAA is the regulatory body and it runs the air traffic services which are the equivalent of NAMA’s functions, so it depends on how you run it. I am not saying we are going to do it here because I don’t have anything official but there is this misunderstanding that there is something like that, no Sir. FAA has a specific structure design in their own case to ensure that there is no conflict of interest. I am not aware of any merger in Nigeria because I have not been given any document officially.
As a regulator, how do you intend to address the unfair treatment of Nigerian airlines by foreign countries especially the high charges and levies imposed on them by these countries?
The advice I will give the airlines is that if you are going to another country to negotiate your services, you should involve the regulatory body, the Ministry of Aviation and also your Embassy in that country. If you as a private organisation you go and negotiate with a government entity that is trying to protect its own airlines, you are going to run into difficulties, but if you involve Ministry of Aviation officials, NCAA officials and Embassy officials, the country knows that if they make things difficult for our airlines, we will apply the same reciprocitory measures to their airlines, so it makes a big difference. A lot of airlines go and do the deal themselves. They should involve us, carry us along, brief us; we are here to help our airlines grow domestically, regionally and internationally. I hear them talking about aeropolitics, yes, an airline from Nigeria want to go and compete with an airline of another country on their route, of course they will make it difficult for you but when carry NCAA officials along, it makes a difference. If you make unreasonable demands on my airlines, I will apply the same to your airlines coming into my country, so it is to their benefits for everyone to come out with good terms for all the airlines.
How has the COVID-19 affected your plan for the Industry?
The discussion I had in the meeting I had after my hand over from the acting Director General was on COVID-19, by then it was not yet declared a pandemic but we could see the trend coming, so we had started putting measures in place. Firstly, how we are going to run the NCAA as an Organisation and business continuity plans in place, how our staff will be working with the development to ensure that whatever happens, we will have people that will be running the Organisation regardless of the COVID challenge, we ensured we have somebody who will step in, we prepared to reduce the workforce coming, a lot of them will stay at home and we have what we determine is enough that will run the Organisation. That was even before the government came out with the directives; we were already working on that. Basically at that time, it was the issue of survival, whatever plans has to be put in place, because whatever plans you have, if you don’t survive, your plan is of no use. First of all, we have to survive, ensure the Organisation survives, and to put measures for the Industry to survive. It certainly delayed our plans but now it is a successful resumption of domestic flights and we have not had a significant spike and contamination cases. So all the plans have been delayed but we have successfully resumed the domestic operations, perhaps one or two minor hitches there, nothing significant, and I know you will all agree with me so far so good and the response from the public complying with the protocols have been excellent. We started the international flight operations, with time we are going to increase the number of flights coming in as things stabilise, we identified hitches that were rectified and we hope things will get much better going forward. So part of the plans we had is repositioning the regulatory body to be more resilient and a body that is flexible to react to changing situation and part of the restructuring we have had is part of this process. In the coming months, we will see the Organisation in a good position to deal with challenges and the emerging challenges and as you are all aware, the COVID-19 has changed the global Industry. The rapid changes in technology is also changing the Industry, not only Aviation but also the ways businesses are conducted, so we have to reposition ourselves to fit into that so that we can really effectively conduct our regulatory responsibilities.