Nigerian airlines have about the lowest aircraft utilisation in the entire world. Having utilisation of about six hours in a 24-hour period while their counterparts in other countries have between 16 to 18 hours of aircraft operations show how difficult it would be for them to meet operating costs, Writes, WOLE SHADARE
A visit to the domestic wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos Saturday night revealed a stark reality about airline operations in the country. The airport terminal was virtually empty; it was like a ghost time. The time was 8 pm as the reporter had gone to the airport to receive a friend who was returning to Lagos from Abuja.
He was returning at 10 p.m. on Green Africa. With the exception of Green, just one other airline was scheduled to make the last flight to the airport after Green Africa’s flight.
Inside the terminal, all airline counters had closed and some were seen sleeping on couches and strategic areas in the terminal. It was likened to a ghost town with airline operations virtually closed for the day.
If the airports as busy as Lagos and Abuja could be that isolated any time it is close to 7.30 pm, it goes to show the low level of flight operations at night and the under-utilisation of airplanes by the airlines which is very worrisome.
Whatever happens and what is happening to the aviation industry is the general malaise and the function of the economy and particularly, security.
In other climes, airline services are 24 hours. While Lagos, Abuja, Port-Harcourt, and Kano airports are designated 24 hours of operation, the same cannot be said of several other airports that are generally regarded as sunset airports which means that by 6 pm flight services cease.
There is no reason why Benin airport cannot be operated in 24 hours. There is no reason why passengers cannot do late flights into Benin. There is no reason why passengers cannot do a 5:00 a.m. flight out of Benin. This is because the airport is located inside the city.
So there are no security issues there. Once you land you just drive out of the airport. It is the same with Calabar airport, which is also built into the city.
There is generally gross under-utilisation of aircraft capacity, which has great negative implications on the profitability of airlines in Nigeria. The number of seats occupied in a commercial flight is directly related to the profitability of that flight.
Racing against time
Not a few believe that airlines race against time to finish all the operations in many of these remote cities. This has caused a lot of flight delays and cancellations as many of the carriers find it difficult to squeeze all their schedules into the daytime to avoid being caught in what may invariably lead to cancellations.
The bottlenecks experienced as a result of inadequate infrastructure, bad weather in most cases, and the prevalence of unexpected VIP movements have forced airlines into a very difficult situation and made them not have value for their airplanes which cost so much just as many of the airplanes are on lease rentals.
The carriers pay for huge bloc hours on their aircraft and find it extremely difficult to break even because of a situation that is none of their fault.
New Telegraph’s investigation shows that an average functional aircraft can operate for 15 to 18 hours daily, but Nigerian airlines fly an average of only seven hours or less.
An airline operator who pleaded anonymity said, “Most of the airports in Nigeria close by 6 pm to 7 pm, whereas airlines should be able to operate their aircraft for at least 18 hours a day. This is one of the problems making their operations not very profitable, because if they can fly from 5 am in the morning till 3 pm the next morning and use the few remaining hours to do maintenance, then airline operations will be very profitable.”
The source explained that some of the landing aids are absent at most of the country’s airports including landing lights, the taxiway light to show airlines where the centre line and the edge of the runway are, and the apron, where airlines can taxi their aircraft.
He said the lack of these instruments reduces the utilisation of the aircraft, adding that whether airlines use their aircraft or not, every 18 months, they have to pay for compulsory C check maintenance for their aircraft.
“About seven domestic operational airlines make less than 300 flights to less than 10 airports daily; whereas, if each can make just three return flights or six flights daily to 20 of the 26 airports, that would be about 600 daily flights for a whole day.
The airports with operational night landing aids are most likely the five international airports in Nigeria.
Nigeria should process more than 15 million passengers annually considering its huge potential as a country blessed with a natural geographic location at the centre of Africa (4.30hrs to most parts of Africa); with most of its airport at approximately sea level, being the 6th largest producer of crude oil (JetA1), and a human population of 190 million.
As a result of low purchasing power, not many who will want to fly can fly, adding that aviation is a function of disposable income and the people that travel in Nigeria are more of travel driven by business, especially for domestic travel.
A former manager with Chanchangi Airlines, Alhaji Mohammed Tukur said that there is limited operational time in Nigeria compared to other parts of the world where aircraft could be utilised for a longer period of time.
He said that security and societal values play roles in why flights do not operate late in the night in Nigeria, noting that it would be difficult in cities like Abuja and Lagos where there is relative security for travellers to go to the airport by midnight and travel to another destination by 2:00 am. This he noted could be done in other countries but it would be difficult to do so in Nigeria.
He noted that it is true that lack of airfield lighting in some airports could be a limiting factor but stressed that it is the people’s disposition not to travel late in the night which is why most domestic flights end in the early hours of the night.
“The major challenge is not airfield lighting. Many people don’t want to travel late. I agree that Nigerian airlines do not fully utilise their aircraft, but operational hours are dictated more by the situation of society. Aircraft should fly for longer hours because they make money when they fly.
I agree that Abuja and Lagos are relatively safe, but many people will not leave their houses by 2:00 a.m. Another factor you have to take cognizance of is that many people who are coming to Abuja are coming to do business. If they arrive that early, where will they stay until the offices where they want to go are opened?” Tukur said.
He recalled that in the past in order to fully utilize the aircraft, Nigerian airlines operated to destinations on the West Coast like Dakar, Senegal in the night after operating domestic routes during the day.
“We used to go to operate to West Coast in the night. We fly to Dakar because the city was a cross-over point to South Africa,” he said.
Other stakeholders explained that airports cannot be kept open, wasting fuel on electricity generators when there is no traffic, and suggested that airports and airlines should meet and agree on how to maximise operational time.
They maintained that airlines have to request for a time extension to many airports in the country before they are open for landing, noting that the airports in Asaba and Uyo, which are owned and operated by Delta and Akwa Ibom state governments respectively have airfield lighting.
There are about 30 airports, more than 18 of them are federal, about eight of them are owned by states and private operators, but less than 10 of these airports are regularly operated.