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CATEGORY ONE: THE HURDLE NIGERIA AWAITS TO CROSS

By NBF News
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Mrs. Njeze
If plans go uninterrupted, Nigeria on or before October 1 this year should have become a United States Federal Aviation Administration (US-FAA) Category One nation in aviation business.

The new status represents very high aviation safety and security standards and countries wishing to fly to the United States of America (USA) must have the certification.

Analysts say the USA, being a major voice of global aviation, came up with the certification to ensure the safety and security of her citizens. Any country with Category One means her airlines flying into the USA are operating within highest safety envelope. It also means they are economically sound, fly healthy airplanes, possess well-trained crew and above all possess impeccable security record, especially in this era of global terrorism.

Thus, this new status, if attained, means the country will no longer hide under the table when 'serious and developed' nations are thrashing out aviation matters on the global scene. It also means Nigeria will now scrutinize deeper before embracing aviation business offers from prospectors because Category One ensures you play in the highest league and in the process separates the boys from the men.Without being economical with the truth, the Nation's aviation sector has been preoccupied with the attainment of the Category One status for three years running.

Attaining the all-important rating, according to the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr Harold Demuren is not an easy grind. He describes it as an expensive, tedious, time consuming and yet very vital certification. Demuren, like other aviation stakeholders believe that Category One, as an emblem of excellent aviation safety practice, can help clean the poor image of the sector and make it irresistible for foreign investors.

To this end, the NCAA Chief says all hands must be on deck to ensure Nigeria scales all the hurdles laced on the path to achieving the new rating. According to information from the US-FAA, each country, under the International Convention on Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention), is responsible for the safety oversight of its own air carriers. Other countries can only conduct specific surveillance activities, principally involving inspection of required documents and the physical condition of aircraft.

The US-FAA conducts the International Aviation Safety Assessment Program (IASA), assessing the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of each country that has carriers operating to the United States. Because of the provisions of the Chicago Convention and national sovereignty, FAA is not permitted to evaluate a foreign carrier within its own sovereign state.

An IASA assessment determines if the foreign CAA provides oversight to its carriers that operate to the United States according to international standards. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations agency, and Annexes 1, 6, and 8 of the Chicago Convention develop those standards.

If the CAA meets standards, FAA gives that authority a Category 1 rating and that means the air carriers from the assessed state may initiate or continue service to the United States in a normal manner and take part in reciprocal code-share arrangements with U.S. carriers.

However, if the CAA does not meet standards, FAA gives that CAA a Category 2 rating.

Category 2 means the air carriers from the assessed state cannot initiate new service and are restricted to current levels of any existing service to the United States while corrective actions are underway.

The US-FAA does not support reciprocal code-share arrangements between air carriers for the assessed state and U.S. carriers when the CAA has been rated Category 2.

During this time, the foreign air carrier serving the United States is subject to additional inspections at U.S. airports. Painfully, Nigeria has been in the Category 2 rating for scores of years, a situation aviation experts describe as shameful considering the length of years the country has been involved in aviation business.

Should Nigeria scale the audit slated for September this year, the country's carriers will fly directly to juicy destinations in the USA under the Open Skies Agreement signed by both nations in August 2000.

Local carriers designated on the Lagos-US route by the government are Arik Air, Virgin Nigeria now Air Nigeria and Bellview Airlines.

Unfortunately, Bellview packed up last year, having bowed to the scorching heat occasioned by the global financial meltdown. Arik became the first among them to take the bold step to commence the intercontinental operation. It began its Lagos-New York service on December 29, 2009 using an Airbus A340-500.

Demuren, while updating stakeholders on the level of progress made on the project said Nigeria has closed the eight critical elements necessary for attaining Category One. The elements are; Primary Aviation Legislation; Specific Operating Regulation; Safety Oversight Functions; Technical Personnel Qualification; Technical Guidance Tools; Provision of Safety Critical Information; Licensing Obligations and the last; Surveillance, Compliance and Enforcement.

Part of the requirement is to re-certify a competent flag carrier designated on the Lagos-US route and Arik was used to scale that hurdle. The aviation regulatory Chief said the next item is a mock exercise that precedes the final audit, which comes up sometimes in September. Demuren said the Category One certification is likely to be his gift to the nation as she marks her 50th independent anniversary on October 1, 2010.

'We're close to attaining Cat 1. There're eight critical elements that must be addressed before we attain it and we've closed all of them. We gave out 58 manuals to Arik Air which their operations must conform to. Interestingly, they met all the necessary requirements hence we've presented them with the new Air Operators' Certificate. That was when we were at the sixth stage which is Licensing. Every airline will go through this. It's compulsory because it has to do with safety.

No going back on this. The next item which is the seventh, is the mock exercise which will be by the end of July. After that, we'll wrap up the attainment of Cat 1. We want the nation to be praying for us. It's a tedious and expensive journey, but we have to comply. We want Nigeria to enjoy the Opens Skies Agreement and that means our carriers can fly directly to the United States unhindered. Category One means high level safety and that's what we stand for. That's what we want to achieve', he said in a recent conference.

In August 2000, Nigeria signed the Open Skies Agreement (OSA) with the USA thus signifying liberalization of the skies for both nations. Aviation analysts like Capt Dele Ore and Sam Akerele, both retired pilot and Airport Manager respectively, insist that the signing of the OSA 'was a stupid decision'.

Ore told Daily Sun in a telephone interview in Lagos last week that OSA is best between two equals and not with a strong country on one side and a very weak one at the other side.

Now, for Nigeria to enjoy the OSA in the first instance, irrespective of whether signing the agreement was right or wrong, she must be armed with the US-FAA Category One and that is the journey Nigeria has been struggling to complete in the last three years.

Since Nigeria is, yet to attain Category One, Arik had to shop for pilots and cabin crew from Hi-Fly, a Portuguese company with US-FAA Category one certification at a whopping 2.5 million euros monthly.

Today, Arik is competing with Delta, one of the biggest airlines in the world and worse still, the airline is spending 2.5 million euros monthly, a very far cry from the revenue it generates on the route.

Though Arik cannot pretend not to anticipate the initial loss it is currently incurring, but the financial haemorrhage would be far less if the airline operates the long haul service using its own aircraft and crew. That explains why it has been supporting the hot pursuit of Category One since inception. Experts say any airline operating a wet lease arrangement is simply tilling the soil for lessor to reap from and unfortunately, that is almost the case with Arik and Hi-Fly.

The aircraft is Ariks, though under a foreign registration, while the crew is Hi-Flys.

Wet lease in aviation business is a situation where a disadvantaged or financially incapacitated airline leases an airplane(s) and crew(s) from a leasing company or a stronger airline under agreed terms of business. In virtually all cases, the fruits of the deal go to the owner of the airplane while the chaff goes to the 'beggar'.

Airlines usually opt for this option under very helpless situations, perhaps not to lose the slots assigned them in the international airports they wish to fly to. Part of the challenges of Arik is the dearth of manpower in the aviation sector. The A340-500 is Airbus' airplane with the longest range and very ideal for intercontinental services.

The airplane also comes with latest navigational equipment and other state-of-the-art cockpit devices and unfortunately, there was no qualified personnel from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to certify and oversee it at the time of acquisition. Arik was left with no option than to leave the airplane with the foreign registration number it came with and that automatically leaves any oversight duties pertaining to the airplane to the country of registration.

According to Arik Air Chairman, Sir Joseph Arumemi Johnson-Ikhide, Nigeria's attainment of Category One will be a welcome development for the nation and will automatically translate to cheaper operational cost on the Lagos-New York route for the airline. Another option is dry lease whereby an airline leases an airplane but operates it with its own crew. This option is usually cheaper for the company wanting to lease but has to be done between companies of almost same rating or when the leasing company is very sure of the competence and certifications of the lessee.

In high risk countries, leasing companies or airlines insist on wet lease in order to ensure the safety of their airplanes. Even when the lessor company agrees on a dry lease arrangement, the insurance premium charged on the aircraft is extremely high. Interestingly, with Category One, not only will Nigeria's aviation rating greatly improve, it will boost international trade and foreign exchange because a lot of airlines and leasing companies will have confidence dealing with the nation.

The journey to Category One has made the NCAA embark on extensive training of its workforce to enable it live up to its responsibility as a regulatory agency. Under the new Nigerian Civil Aviation Requirements (NCARs), it must oversee all the activities of the airlines, airplanes, airports, ground handling companies, airspace service providers and other agencies in the sector.

Demuren always emphasizes that 'days of self regulation are over. If I see any inadequacy in any airport or agency, I'll shut such a place. Everything must comply with safety and security rules as contained in the NCARs'.

Also commenting on the gains of Category One, an Aviation Consultant, Sam Akerele said: 'Category One means Nigerian airlines flying to the USA are safe. USA does not want to gamble with the lives of her citizens hence the Category 1 rating. It ensures the airlines are buoyant economically speaking. That means you can pay compensation when an unfortunate accident occurs. Not this thing we're doing in Nigeria by deferring payment and not paying at all. The USA wants to know the crew and the airplane how sound they are. The USA also wants to know your security apparatus. What is it like and all that? It would be great if we achieve that', he said.

Also speaking in the same vein, the Chairman House of Representatives Committee on Aviation, Hon Bethel Amadi said his committee is ready, willing and able to support the NCAA in its quest to attain the all-important Category One. He also said other sectors of the industry will not be starved of the required legislative support so as to ensure the entire sector marches along successfully on the path of progress.

The hope of all aviation stakeholders in the aviation sector is that Nigeria's attempt at attaining Category One will not be another unrealized dream that will included in the list of abandoned projects in the aviation sector.

Emphasizing the gains of Category One, the NCAA Director General, Dr Harold Demure, who spoke after the mock audit in Lagos Thursday said the new status has a lot of multiplier effects.

He described the mock as a huge success, expressing confidence that the final assessment exercise will also be a success.

'The gains of Category One are many. Nigeria becomes a hub, and that's a major thing. Once you have it you become a major hub. And you know coming to Africa, which should be hub than Nigeria? We are centrally placed, we have a large population, we have oil, we are the largest trading country; instead of people taking our joy away it now comes back here.

Tourism is forgone, but before you do tourism in other country, you say category one, that is why I say multiplier effect, it brings next Monday the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) into place. So, we can now do business with Americans, for they look at which country have category one at times. Our airports can go when it comes to doing business here. This is aside the fact that our carriers fly directly to the United States. It will also boost air traffic and international trade because some mega airlines and agencies will only want to deal with nations that have Category One'.

The NCAA boss also urged aviation stakeholders and Nigerians in general to work hard and ensure that the Category One after it is achieved is sustained. He said many countries in the past were hitherto awarded the world-class rating had it withdrawn when it appeared they completely dropped their standards in the aviation sector.

'For Nigeria, we have to sustain it, because many countries in the world who have got Category One, had it withdrawn when they failed to sustain it. If you go to bed, they withdraw it, and whenever they withdraw it, its always a bad news. The minister and top functionaries, all of them are usually fired; because it is a disgrace.

The fund is there for Nigeria, and we have people who are well trained to sustain it. They US-FAA officials said it that they have never seen the number of people like this so trained; They were very happy and we were very happy to hear this, so this good for all of us. We must not go back, we must look forward. The era of accidents must be bye gone for ever', he stated.