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Airport re-opening: Anxiety over low passenger traffic, sluggish recovery

Fresh from the lifting of restriction on domestic flights after over four months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigerian airlines are experiencing a sluggish recovery as experts predict that air travel won’t see passenger demand returning to the pre-COVID era for at least three to four years.

Domestic airlines, many of which were not financially buoyant pre-COVID-19,  experienced low patronage as flights resumed on July 8 and the checks by Daily Sun revealed that the situation is yet to improve. At the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA2) and General Aviation Terminal (GAT), airlines that operated on the first day of resumption were Air Peace, Arik Air, Max Air and Ibom Air on Lagos-Abuja routes with about 50 per cent load factor.

Arik’s Air’s 7:15am Lagos-Abuja flight carried 78 passengers with a Boeing 737 aircraft which would have carried an average of 150 to 200 passengers despite the social distance requirement.   On its second Lagos-Abuja flight, the airline carried about 80 passengers.

So far, 14 airports have resumed operations including MMA Lagos; Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja (Domestic terminal); Port Harcourt Airport (Domestic Terminal); Aminu Kano Airport, Kano (Domestic Terminal); Kaduna Airport; Margaret Ekpo Airport, Calabar; Sam Mbakwe Airport, Owerri; Maiduguri Airport and Jos Airport. These airports were reopened by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) after clearance by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), yet there hasn’t been much significant improvement in traffic as most of the airlines recorded as low as 30 per cent patronage this past week.

Many of the domestic airlines in Nigeria have B737 classics in their fleet which could take about 140 passengers depending on the configuration and some were forced to cancel flights and code-share their passengers with other airlines when those on board were five, six or sometimes seven.

The operators say the low traffic was expected because the confidence level among passengers is low but that as passengers see that flying is safe, and their confidence level in the safety measures put in place increases, the load factor will increase.

The chairman of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, predicted before the lifting of restrictions that passenger traffic would be low. While speaking during another webinar organised by Aelex partners, he said that on resumption, passenger traffic would be low due to fears which the passengers might entertain regarding air travel and to this end, a lot has to be done to encourage people to travel again. The Air Peace boss said few of its aircraft would be deployed at resumption as well as reduction in the number of flights.

“Out of our 13 Boeing 737 aircraft, we are only going to deploy four of them and out of our eight Embraer jets, we are going to deploy only six because those ones are just 50-seater. So we will manage with those ones.

“From 100 flights per day, we are going down to 42 flights. So going to Abuja will no longer be every hour. We are downsizing our operations to almost 60 per cent: we are going to do about 40 per cent of our operations and even in that 40 per cent, we are not going to carry 40 per cent of the passengers we used to carry. Passenger figures are not going to be the same again like what it used to be years back. Everything has changed. So going into operations, a new set of regulations will emerge.”

Aviation analyst, Group Capt(rtd.) John Ojikutu,  said so far the statistics of passengers traffic are not encouraging. “If the passenger traffic continues the way it’s been in the last few days, the industry could suffer more recession than it is suffering and will lose the confidence of the public and whatever palliative government applies would end up as waste.”

However, there was some improvement in traffic few days to the Sallah holidays. A source in Air Peace said they recorded almost 100 percent capacity in the Lagos-Abuja flights in the days preceding the holidays while Dana Air recorded between 70-80 percent load factor.

Air fares increase

Despite the low traffic, airfares have increased by almost 40 percent. A one-way ticket from Lagos to Abuja and Port Harcourt increased by about 88 per cent. Flights which used to cost between N22,000 to N28,000 now cost between N33,000 to N41,000. A one way ticket from Lagos to Abuja on Arik Air, now costs N32,699. For Dana, it costs N35,099 and on Air Peace, it cost N40, 299.

Way out

Aviation consultant  and principal partner of Etimfri Group, Amos Akpan, told Daily Sun that passenger traffic would only increase in consonance with the economic ability of potential travelers to afford airfare. He said this isn’t the time for airlines to reduces their fares as reduction in fares would be counterproductive.

“The airlines should not reduce fares from where it is as incentive to increase passenger traffic. This approach will be counterproductive. The reason is because the cost of producing the service is high and is still rising. By analogy, you can’t produce a can of drink for N10 and sell it for less than N11. In the same vein, you can’t travel by air if your income cannot afford the airfare. If you must travel, you will choose the mode that suits your budget; or if you can, you conduct your business virtually.

“To attract those with the ability to pay the current airfare, the airlines should be seen to have repositioned. By this, I am referring to elimination of delays, make access to purchase of tickets through to check-in and boarding of aircraft less cumbersome and seamless for travelers. Send out lots of messages about the safety of flying in the midst of coronavirus pandemic. Consistently enlighten the public on the covid-19 protocols observed by airlines, and on the air filtration inbuilt in the aircraft.

“Airlines must synchronise their schedule to reduce the excess capacity they provide at specific times on specific routes. Passengers are apprehensive at this initial stage of resumption. Therefore, the more they know flights are reliable, safe, and without incidences of infection by flight, the more they will get back to flying,” he said.

On the role the Federal Government has to play to revamp the industry, he said:  “The Federal Government should reposition its body language especially via national briefs. Convey the message that people can go about in the new normal provided they observe all the rules of covid-19 protocols. The new normal has come to stay and it will be with us for a long time. We must be encouraged to live and conduct businesses within the rules.

The government must make itself believable. It is important the people of Nigeria have confidence in and believe in their government. This makes it easier to accept and do what the government says.

“The following infrastructure are very crucial to aid the revamping of the industry: Maintenance Repair and overhaul facilities; Aircraft Leasing Company; Simulators for pilots and recurrent workshops for technicians; Information Technology platforms; Functional modern navigational aids and single interest rate facilities for the industry not above five per cent, not below 10 years tenor,” he said.

Ojikutu told Daily Sun that there isn’t much the airlines can do if the economy is in recession and that as long as there is still some form of lockdown, traffic would remain low. He also pointed out that international operations which contributes to more than 60 percent of the industry’s revenue  and provide many passengers for domestic airlines haven’t resumed.

He also indentified the fact that most of the country’s airports do not operate beyond sunset as they lack runway and taxiway lightings as a contributing factor.

“The airlines on their own can do nothing if the economy remains in recession as it is and as long as the government and commercial activities are still in lockdown, the schools are in lockdown, industries;  small, medium and large, etc. Remember too, that the foreign airlines that contribute 80 per cent revenues to commercial aviation have step down their flights to the country; it is from them that the domestic airlines get some passengers to distribute to and fro international to domestic airports.The airlines can tap 500,000 metric tons from internal cargo transportation where over 100m metric tons are moved annually on our roads networks.

“Most of our national airports do not operate beyond sunset because they lack runway and taxiways lightings; these should be a priority. If this can be done, it can increase the reach of the airlines, increase passengers traffic invariably, the earnings of both the airlines and the services providers. Because of the limited reach, a lot of facilities too need maintenance which have been neglected over the years. Runways and taxiways maintenance, fire rescue machine maintenance that must have reduced the safety categories of most airports; lack of fire/water hydrants or their maintenance where there are; we were talking about lack of ILS or their service ability early this year; have they been installed or reinstalled at the needed airports? Continuous training, retraining of skilled manpower is what is needed to sustain the certification and categorisation of our compliance as CAT1 to the global standards,” he said.

Despite Ojikutu’s concern that the restriction of international travels is one of the reasons for low passenger traffic, there may not be much ray of hope that when foreign airlines resume operations, passenger traffic will rise to its pre-covid levels. Companies in the travel and hospitality industry are not very confident that the travel industry will recover quickly.

Airbnb Co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky told Yahoo that the coronavirus outbreak has permanently altered travel preferences across the globe in ways that will shape the travel and hospitality industry.Chesky, whose company suffered hundreds of millions in losses and laid off a quarter of its staff in the aftermath of the outbreak said, “Travel has changed forever.

The world of travel as we knew it in January would never come back. I feel very confident about that. Zoom meetings have largely replaced business travel, and leisure trips have shifted away from metropolitan areas toward easily accessible rural locations.

“People are saying they do want to get out of the house, regardless what country they’re in. But they aren’t right now super comfortable getting on airplanes. They want to get in cars, and they want to travel not more than 300 miles away or 200 miles, a tank of gas.

“A whole bunch of people who thought they had to get on an airplane and go to a city and stay in a central district realise, well, there are 400 national parks in the United States, and I live near one and maybe I should go see a natural park. Suddenly, you can’t like undo all this knowledge,” Chesky says.

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