By Okuneye Moyosola
Captain Prekeme Ogbobou Porbeni is a former Director of Operations (Ground), and former Director of Marketing, Nigeria Airways. He is currently a civil aviation consultant and Principal Manager, Aviation, Presidential Amnesty Programme for the Niger Delta. In this interview with MMS Plus Newspaper, he reveals how Nigerian airlines can be successful. He also emphasizes the need to employ professionals capable of running the industry: Enjoy it:
As regards the pension that wasn’t paid to the workers of the defunct Nigeria Airways, what has the government done about this sir?
Our employer, the government has been paying us in bit and pieces and has not finished the bad dream.
We have seen government actions that indicate that we are beggars in our old age in our country. After giving the best of our lives in patriotic servitude, the workers of the most famous airline in Africa are treated with characteristic disdain by the politicians who rule the nation. While the ex-workers are waiting and dying for what is rightfully ours, the government seems to need the rocket- science knowledge to do the needful while expecting the youths of today who are watching, to render equal or better patriotic service to the nation. The whole experience of pension payment to the workers has been very shameful, reflecting a ruling class that cares very little for the masses. Even present workers are not doing better if you consider what is going on about just getting the meaningless minimum wage improved to livable wage in the midst of scandalous remunerations for the legislators.
We have had several cases of indigenous airlines going into extinction in the country. This is becoming an eye-sore in the aviation industry. As a veteran, what do you think has led to the death of local airlines and what can be done to avoid situations like this?
Diminishing patriotism on the part of investors is what I will call it; coupled with a corrupt civil service that is obviously more focused on personal welfare than national service. Quite a few of the attempted replacement for Nigeria Airways were at best, dubious in intention, fostering money laundering and ill-equipped non professionals that meager wages can throw up. Starting from the military governance era, the industry like most of others in the country was taken over by individuals with little or no experience who had connections with those in power. The result is this hit and run episodes in the aviation industry.
Most of the players do not plan to be in the business for long term. They come for the short burst prestige, quick profits and senseless departure characteristic of the political class in Nigeria today. This unfortunately will continue for the foreseeable future as even the apparently genuine airlines like Air Peace are systematically being discouraged by frustrating policies of the government via the government controlling agencies. State Governments forming airlines is obvious and deliberate wastage of our commonwealth.
To rectify this trend, the government will have to first redress her own attitude towards domestic airlines, most of who are presently private carriers. This has to be with an objective view of encouraging them to grow in a transparent and ownership unbiased approach. This has the huge advantage of getting capable hands on board to build the Nation rather than the promotion of sectional interest that can only result in dismantling of strong national inclusiveness and identity. Lastly, government can start now to encourage the performing ones on ground like Air Peace, Aero, Arik and Medview. Even cargo operators like Allied need this encouragement.
Training of staff especially pilots contributed to the growth of Nigeria Airways. Do you think most airlines really see this aspect of training as vital?
The training of staff was a vital part of sustainability and success of Nigeria Airways. We even produced pilots and other crew that successfully operated the presidential fleet that flew our presidents for quite a while before the Nigerian Air Force came into being. This is because it is the norm of this highly technical industry to ensure appropriate and relevant education of the operatives. Most successful airlines do this and not just for pilots, but for the whole workforce. The airline industry today is still enjoying the benefits of the training that Nigerian Airways gave to their staff because a lot of the ex-staff of Nigerian Airways are working for these airlines now without any new training. Training is vital.
Today, however, only Air Peace is visibly engaged in the training of it employees as an investment to the expected excellence level. The management of this relatively successful airline has been loudly complaining and begging for support. It is hoped that the government will encourage this efforts because the whole nation is the major stakeholder in aviation safety, security and efficiency resulting from training and the success of any one in any of our industries.
What can you say about the reappointment of Hadi Sirika as the Minister of Aviation? There are so many projects that he didn’t carry out during his first tenure such as establishment of an MRO facility and a national carrier. Do you think he would be able to complete these projects in another four years?
The re- appointment of Sirika is a welcomed one. He is the nearest in professional experience in the industry within the political class. Also, continuity demands it. The first four years offered him the opportunity to study the industry and plan his programmes for improvement. This time is for consolidation and advanced execution. We are all looking forward to a finished product and well laid out industry at the end of his tenure. If he does that well, he might be recommended to the next government regardless of the party. Nobody wants to spoil a good thing. The problem now is lack of trust which we hope our country will outgrow. Longevity in service is good due to application of experience.
What is the place of technology in improving the standard of our airports?
The place of technology in improving the standard of our airport is as in every sector is inevitable. The big advantage is that it will promote efficiency and result in management of the industry for better service delivery.
What are you expectations from Sirika in his new tenure?
My expectations for the minister are to articulate the policy thrust from the outcome of the recent Federal Government retreat and issue measurable result- oriented assignment to the agencies. There is need for him to appoint a no salary part time advisory board of patriotic veterans of the industry. The minister also has to meet with and rub minds with this body regularly in camera on major projects on policy implementation. Good navigation requires that you know where you are coming from, you know where you are before you can plan where you are going successfully. If you discard where you are coming from, you future plan may not work well and that is what has been happening. There is this discontinuity in the system. Once there is a new government, everything is thrown out and this is not helping us. I also expect the minister to eliminate the micro-managing of the agencies and just apply appropriate sanctions for lackluster performance as well as order the renegotiation of all the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASAs)
One way to improve the infrastructure of our airports is through concessionning. Yet, the issue seems to be taken with levity and our airports are degrading by the day. What can we do to ensure that our airports are of international standards?
I do not observe levity here. It is obvious that government has been and still is unable to manage any commercial revenue generating enterprise. I project that the concessioning will be done within the next four years even though it will be under controversial circumstances. Concession of the airports and even more government owned facilities is inevitable. The powers are only waiting “for the right people” to come along with questionable consideration. The body language of the government so far on the issue of concessioning seems to point to the unhealthy direction of who we know and not who can do it. The nation badly needs who can do it. Very successful Gatwick airport in UK is owned by a Nigerian. There we have someone who has the capability without the consideration of what country he comes from. We can learn from that example in concessioning to Nigerians who can do the needful. The idea is all about success planning.
Foreign airlines are taking majority of Nigerian air market which puts the domestic airlines at risk. What’s your say about this sir?
“Risk” is understating the gravity of the damage being done by our country. The ministry’s officials are squarely to blame. These officials negotiating for us are of low patriotic zeal. They only just pretend to be ignorant of the damage been inflicted on our country by their acts of omission and sometimes commission. Government can rectify this by re-negotiating all the BASAs with professional patriotic independent observers in attendance. This format should be standard anytime a negotiation like this occurs. Even if the stakeholders might not have the power to speak, they should just observe. This will checkmate the ministry officials into signing these unfavorable agreements like we have now. All the BASAs must be re-negotiated. Unfortunately, these BASAs have tenures that may be binding. We might have to be creative in implementation pending their expiration but renegotiate, we must. We have not been applying these known professional techniques for such levels of negotiation.
Recently, there was a case of security breach at the airport where a man attempted to enter the engine of an aircraft. Some industry observers are of the opinion that such incidents occur frequently. There have also been several security issues at our airports. How can we beef up our security in the aviation industry?
First, it is completely wrong to call it normal. It is criminal and abnormal for anybody to be in that part of the airport at anytime except the person is on official duty. This was even a foreigner and the security implications are humongous. That incident by now should have resorted in resignations or to some people been jailed, but as we know, Nigeria does not sanction failure. If we sanction such catastrophic failures appropriately, the officials who by the way are paid for these duties will sit up.
Do you think the country could attain a stable aviation industry like the days of Nigeria airways?
Yes. If the minister reads the vision and intentions of the president right and diligently puts in place, appropriate policies to be objectively implemented, things could get better. We lost grounds from when some African countries wanted us to come and establish national carriers for them, now we are looking for foreign partners that will come and teach us how to form one as if we have never had one. This is a disgraceful and national embarrassment.
Longevity of ministerial appointment could be very helpful here too especially when you have a round peg in a round hole as we have now. With independent and strictly objective veterans like we find in the Aviation Round Table keeping him on his toes through sustainable and regular engagement, we can. The road is rough and long but working together, we can. We need a good minister like the one we have who should also realize that even he, has not finished training as training is continuous. The fact that you are a minister for second term doesn’t mean that you know it all. He should humble himself and get more wide consultation in place by getting down to the level of those that have been in the industry before him.
This appointment is a good beginning to a journey that is still far ahead. If the Head of State says he wants a vibrant aviation industry, you create the appropriate policy which those parastatals will now send it to their directors for implementation. All these processes can be monitored and measured every so often as to the level of progress in all areas. If it is done that way, in four years, we will have a stable aviation industry, cruising at a high altitude and we will be back on the pedestal of glory.