The Federal Government’s change of mind and ditch of local airlines in the evacuation of Nigerians overseas is causing rancour in the aviation industry, at a time all hands should be on deck.
Local airline operators, apparently aggrieved by the development, argue that local airlines are in better position to get the evacuation job given available capacity and dire need for survival.
But investigations by The Guardian showed that the Federal Government opted for the likes of Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines, British Airways (BA), among others, to save cost compared to the higher bill being demanded by local airlines.
Sources at the Ministry of Aviation confirmed that the earlier decision was to enlist Air Peace and two other airlines in the exercise. “But what they are asking for is on the high side. The negotiator deemed it unwise to be paying so high to the local carriers for the service the government can almost get for free from foreign airlines that are also our partners.”
The director, who preferred anonymity, said Emirates’ evacuation of 265 Nigerians to Lagos Wednesday, was more of the initiative of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government. “BA is giving similar opportunity as they plan to evacuate Britons from Nigeria this weekend. So, these are just business decisions to save some costs. It has nothing to do with preference for foreign airlines over locals.”
But indigenous operators, under the aegis of Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON), however, said the action undermined the local airlines, describing it as disappointing, after the pledge to enlist two domestic carriers in the exercise.
There are about 4,000 Nigerians currently awaiting evacuation from 67 countries. A schedule released by the Foreign Affairs Ministry shows that the first batch of evacuees of 265 from Dubai arrived Nigeria on Wednesday, May 6, another 300 persons are to arrive from London on Friday, May 10, on British Airways, and on Monday, May 11th, Ethiopian Airline would airlift those coming from United States of America.
The Chairman of AON, Captain Nogie Meggison, said his members were shocked and disappointed by the decision to evacuate Nigerians with foreign airlines.
“So, we are calling for government to identify those officials, who took such decision. At a time government is searching for ways to boost its revenue, some officials are giving away the country’s meagre resources.
“These foreign airlines are not going to create jobs for our teeming youths. The federal government has made a call to employers not to sack their staff in the face of the current economic crunch caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but how can the airlines cope when the opportunity for them to make money and pay their workers were taken away and given to foreign carriers?
“British Airways cannot provide jobs for Nigerians, Emirates cannot provide jobs for Nigerians, Ethiopian Airlines cannot provide jobs for Nigerians; it is our airlines that can do that. But the support they need is being taken away by some government officials and given to foreign carriers from whom we don’t gain anything, except landing charges of about $2,000,” he said.
He noted that all countries use their airlines to do evacuation, but it is ironic that despite the fact Nigeria has the capacity, it decided to engage foreign airlines.
Similarly, the House Committee on Aviation also condemned the preference of foreign airlines over the local ones for the evacuation Nigerians abroad when there are three Nigerian carriers that have the capacity.
The Chairman of the Committee, Nnolim Nnaji, called on the Federal Government to revert to capable indigenous operators to carry out the evacuation exercise.
Nnaji frowned at the engagement of foreign airlines like Ethiopian Airlines, British Airways and Emirates to airlift stranded Nigerians from Dubai, London and America by the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Presidential Task Force, (PTF) on COVID-19.
The lawmaker called for the immediate cancellation of the contracts and the reversal to the capable domestic operators noting that America and Britain recently evacuated their citizens from Nigerian without the use of other countries’ carriers.
“The action of those responsible for this action is not only a disservice to the local airlines which have done their best to provide patriotic service to Nigerians but equally detrimental to our national pride and dignity,” Nnaji said.
Some other stakeholders, however, saw the matter differently; they blamed it on lack of cooperation and wrong priorities.
Secretary-General, Aviation Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), said the preference for foreign carriers dated back in time, and had festered with multiple destinations slot.
Unfortunately, he said, the local operators have never been united to challenge the anomaly, as they are allegedly more comfortable with government’s intervention funds during crisis.
Another stakeholder said while the operators were waiting for intervention fund, “the international business communities are taking actions, measures and manipulation of the market amid confusion and desperation using subtle diplomacy with the collaboration of their government to create business windows for their people.
“Government should engage the airline to start lifting agricultural items around the states instead of allowing trucks to move items with many people cluttering up on the lorry and spreading COVID-19 from state to state as they go. That is where intervention should start from. Engage the airlines seriously,” they said.