Aviation probe: Half-hearted, out of sync Zainab Suleiman Okino



If the intention of the Senate’s probe of the Aviation sector was to rattle the foreign airlines operating in Nigeria, especially British Airway and Virgin Atlantic, it’s right on point. Yet, if the idea was meant to achieve parity, eradicate discriminations in air fares and other unwholesome practices, the nation might have to wait longer. A nation whose political orientation is still medieval and approach to issues is most often half-hearted; can the probe force the airlines to reverse their unfair fares? Not likely.

Again, the National Assembly has appeared more hysterical than practical, in probe matters. Yes, public hearings are conducted, the rots are exposed and recommendations are made, and that’s where it ends. That’s because the forces that throw up these misdemeanors and help to perpetrate them are powerful and can’t be dismantled easily. The lawmakers understand this power game very well. They are either helpless or in most cases act on impulse, to prove to Nigerians that they are representing them very well; only to relax and then, nothing changes.

Experience in this sector also indicates that, because of our weak regulatory framework, the foreign airline operators adopt condescending attitude in their treatment of Nigerians, even as they make huge profits from Nigeria-bound routes. There is also the sad prospect of the probe not achieving its aim of forcing air fares down, sadly. No probe report recommendations have ever been implemented, so why should there be hope that the aviation sector probe will achieve anything tangible or their recommendations implemented?

As for airlines, the principle of demand and supply and market forces could be used as an excuse to explain away their actions. When demand is high in contrast with supply, fares sky-rocket. It is a simple economic logic. Since Nigerians love luxury and many patronise first class of these airlines, they (airlines) have to maximise profit by increasing the fares. If fewer Ghanaians do same, they have to be wooed to patronise first class with lower fares. The question to ask is: where was our government or the regulatory agencies, when impunity by foreign airlines on our soil was entrenched, before the recent outcry? And why do unproductive elite in an unproductive country crave so much opulence? Meanwhile, our airlines do not have the liberty to operate freely in other countries. And this brings to the fore another national embarrassment!

Nigeria is the only country that cannot boast of a national carrier, which in most cases set the standard. We privatised and killed the Nigerian Airway, while the West and the apostles of privatisation and market forces have maintained theirs. The same market forces principle is being applied to determine air fares—albeit negatively for Nigeria.

Airlines would always resort to this as a defensive shield. So, how far can the Senate probe go? The probe, in my estimation, is a protective shield for group interest rather than national interest. It is the same lawmakers and big men that patronise first class and business classes of these airlines. While they go for it in droves, the Ghanaians rarely do and have to be encouraged to do so.

Notwithstanding this, there is a bigger ailment that afflicts the transport sector, and for which a probe is a priority. Among all the three segments of this sector— air, water and road, why is the Senate concerned about air transport only? That goes back to self preservation  that we talked about earlier. Again, why only international routes? In Nigeria, airfares are increased arbitrarily, but nobody has called the local airlines to order. Road transport claims lives every day and goods cannot be moved freely from the hinterland to the cities, yet there’s no probe on it. The Abuja-Lokoja dualisation contract was awarded 10 years ago, and it’s yet to be completed. And every year, it is included in the budget.  Nobody is asking question, and there is no probe instituted to look into it. The railway system which should be the heartbeat of the transport sector is not even considered a priority. Why do we always seek for solutions abroad when domestic problems are mounting?

However, this is not an endorsement of what foreign airlines are doing.  It does not make sense for Nigerians to pay $10,816 fare for Abuja—London return flight, while the Accra—London equivalent costs $4,798. Meanwhile London—New York is $625, London—Dallas is $787 and London—Atlanta is $772. These routes have nine hour –distances, while the Abuja—London route of six hours costs $1,200.

Certainly, these worrisome disparities could not have endured without local authorities’ connivance. It is a huge rip-off that benefits a few power brokers at the echelon of the aviation sector. So, if this probe does not extend to these local collaborators, not much can be achieved. I implore the Senate to extend its tentacles beyond the British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, so that it won’t be labeled as being concerned about issues that affect only those endowed— the rich and the powerful.

Zainab Suleiman Okino,editor and columnist with Blueprint newspaper published this article May 2,2012

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