On Monday, March 5, 2018, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) announced the country had successfully been re-certified by the Federal Aviation Authority of the United States of America (US FAA) with the Category One (CAT-1) certificate.
It would be the third time that the NCAA would achieve the Cat – 1 certification, which is a safety, personnel, processes and infrastructure audit that confers on Nigeria the right to host direct flight services between its international airports and any international airport in the USA.
Nigeria first achieved the Cat-1 certification in 2010. Until then, the US had bared direct flights between Nigeria and any of its airports.
This meant Nigerian travelling to the US had to first fly through Europe or Asia with long layover hours at airports in London, Paris, Istanbul, Doha, Dubai, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Addis Ababa among other airports before connecting to the US.
The receipt of Cat-1 in 2010 has the immediate impact on air travelers cutting off the transit time in offshore airports as Arik Air was granted the nod to fly into the JFK airport in New York from Lagos; Delta Airlines flies the Lagos–Atlanta route; while United Airlines was licenced to fly the Lagos–Houston route. It was a great relief to hundreds of air passengers in Nigeria hooking up US cities directly from Lagos under less than 12 hours. Going through airports in Europe or Asia usually implied flying for the first six or seven hours from Lagos to such airports, waiting for another two to six hours on transit, and then re-connecting for another round of flying time that could last for between eight to 16 hours, depending on if one is transiting from Europe or Asian airports like Dubai or Doha.
Between 2010 and 2014, the competition created by the three carriers (Arik, Delta, United) also ensured a reduction in prices of air fares for passengers. And this is aside the improvements in safety infrastructure at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport Lagos where immigration, DSS, Police and FAAN security are trained to deal particularly with anti-terrorism threats and related issues.
In 2014, the NCAA represented the country for the second audit (after the expiration of the first four-year tenure) and it also scaled this second audit to retain the certification. What however made the 2018 recertification exercise unique, according to the Director General of the NCAA, Capt. Muhktar Usman, is the conduct of the audit by Nigerian personnel from the NCAA.
“After the 2014 re-certification, we said we can do it by ourselves. And so this time, we used an entirely in-house personnel to do the Cat-One and we got it,” said Usman. “We knew we had grown our human capital capabilities. We refused to engage any external consultants, and we also saved a lot of money such that we didn’t even ask the government for any extra budgetary provisions,” Usman added.
Indeed, this is perhaps one major benefit Nigeria has derived from Cat-One certification in 2010. But the success dates to the early 2000s when the country suffered from multiple air crashes that made it imperative to hire the best aeronautical and safety inspectors and auditors to boost the manpower capacity of the NCAA. That mission saw a lot of competent Nigerian pilots, aircraft engineers, and university lecturers drawn from within and outside the country opting to take up jobs at the NCAA to maintain a safe sky. When the US FAA noticed the rich resume of staff of the NCAA, some of whom worked in the US and UK aviation industries, it simply sent in its ‘check-lists’ in 2017 containing the do’s and don’ts for them to carry out the Cat-One re-certification. A timeline was given to complete the exercise. A team of US FAA auditors who returned to Nigeria early 2018 to appraise the performance of the Nigerian auditors had no option than to okay their work. All noticeable gaps that could prevent a re-certification were closed by the Nigerian auditors.
“When I was approached by some external consultants to assist us carry out the Cat-One recertification, I got back to the NCAA DG and he told me we have the capacity to do it in-house,” said Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika. “I am happy we achieved it using in-house staff. This shows our capacity has improved over the years to match international standards,” he added.
Retaining and sustaining Cat-One certificate between 2010 and 2018 by the NCAA certainly is a great feat, but industry analysts would point at a major snag – the inability of Nigerian carriers to take advantage of the certification. Although, three Nigerian airlines (Arik, Med-View, and Air Peace) have all been certified by both the Nigerian and US regulatory agencies to operate flights into the US, at present, none of the carriers is flying route. Initially, Arik Air offered some form of hope that a Nigerian carrier could compete on the lucrative Lagos–New York route. It did so between 2010 and 2017, though with much difficulties and attendant stress on passengers as flight delays and cancellations often characterised their operations. The Nigerian carrier not only lacked the requisite aircraft fleet to fly international routes, it also suffered the misapplication of funds from its Nigerian managers. In 2017, Arik Air grounded all its international operations – London, Johannesburg, and New York. At Present, the airline is under the receivership of AMCON. Analyst, Ndaeyo Uko says the loss to Nigeria is monumental.
Said Uko, “We work hard to secure Cat-One only for American carriers to enjoy a monopoly of the certification. Today, with Arik Air shutting down its Lagos – New York operation, Delta Air Lines has been licenced to take over that route.
“So, we have a situation where Delta Air is now flying Lagos–Atlanta, and also Lagos–New York. That tells a lot of sad story on the state of our industry. Medview and Air Peace have also not activated their licences. We lose on all fronts. Air fares won’t come down without competition and Nigerians won’t get the jobs that could have been created in the Nigerian and US airports if we had the three airlines flying into New York, Houston, Washington, and Atlanta as envisaged.