CATEGORY 1 STATUS: THE PAIN, THE GAINS
On Tuesday, August 24, the United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr Robin Renee Sanders announced in Abuja that the United States Federal Aviation Adminis-tration (US-FAA) has awarded the much-desired Category 1 certificate to Nigeria after scaling the International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) audit in July this year.
Expectedly, the news was soothing as the three and half years journey has been somewhat tortuous. Eight critical elements had to be followed by a mock audit which took place last month. The eight critical 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; Surveillance, Compliance and Enforcement.
Part of the requirement was to re-certify a competent flag carrier designated on the Lagos-US route and Arik was used to scale that hurdle. Other airlines will eventually be re-certified under the new era.
The journey to Cat 1 witnessed several visits of different teams of Aviation Security experts from the US-FAA, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States Consulate, among other bodies. The attainment of the new status also entailed a technical assessment audit, training of the regulatory authority (the NCAA) personnel, documents were perused, airports were inspected, airlines operating manuals were scrutinized, huge funds was expended, all in a bid to pass the Cat 1.
The Director General of NCAA, Dr Harold Demuren said at a time, that he almost lost hope of attaining the all-important status but for the timely intervention of late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua who had to write his US counterpart, George W. Bush to tie up some lose ends.
Prior to this, the House of Representatives through its Committee on Aviation, Chaired by Hon Bethel Nnaemeka Amadi, moved a motion for the passage of the new Civil Aviation Act 2006 into law. The move was supported by the Senate while late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua eventually signed it into law.
Under the new Act, full regulatory powers were given to the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). It also insulates whoever occupies that office from political interference.
An IASA Cat 1 status simply means Nigeria now complies with the international air safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is the United Nation's technical agency for aviation that establishes international standards and recommended practices for aircraft operations and maintenance.
It also means Nigeria now has the laws and regulations necessary to oversee air carriers in accordance with ICAO rules. Countries with Cat 1 are regarded as those with impeccable safety standards and enjoy lots of benefits including lower insurance premium, cheaper aircraft leasing and automatically joining the big league in aviation. Before, Nigeria was in Cat 2 and as such regarded as one of the high risk countries by international aircraft lessors and insurance firms.
Nigerian operators leased airplanes at much higher rate and paid heavily for insurance even when the airplane in question is a brand new one. The Executive Chairman of Arik Air, Sir Joseph Arumemi Johnson-Ikhide while speaking during the delivery ceremony of a brand new B737-700 in Seattle in 2008 urged the Nigerian government to work hard to attain Cat 1.
He stressed that Boeing insisted that the company pays higher insurance premium which is an extra commercial burden to the company. As it is now, Nigerian registered airplanes can fly directly to US cities under the Opens Skies Agreement (OSA) between both nations. Arik Air commenced its Lagos-New York flights in December last year using its A340-500 airplane, but with foreign crew from a Portugese company called Hi-Fly at a whopping 2.5 million euros monthly.
Other airlines designated on the Lagos-US route are Air Nigeria and Bellview. Unfortunately, the latter has closed shops while Air Nigeria said it would commence the transatlantic service before the end of the year.
Nigeria is the sixth African nation to attain Cat 1. Others are Cape Verde, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco and South Africa.
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 developed 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.
Presenting the Cat 1 certificate to Nigeria's Aviation Minister, Mrs Fidelia Njeze, the US Ambassador Robin Sanders said the feat achieved as a result of joint effort between both nations.
'This achievement is an important milestone for Nigeria and the US-Nigeria bilateral relations. It's only fitting that this coveted Cat 1 comes at the dawn of the nation's year of golden jubilee. The US Mission, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the FAA have worked together as a team in the true spirit of bilateral partnership over the last two years to achieve this goal. Hats off for everyone for a job well done and a rating well deserved', she stated.
Speaking at the occasion, an elated Aviation Minister, Mrs Fidelia Njeze said with Cat 1, Nigeria has automatically become the hub for West and Central Africa, adding that foreign investors and investment will sharply increase soonest. She expressed gratitude to the various US agencies that were instrumental to attaining the much-desired Cat 1, pledging that the standards thus achieved will be maintained and not lowered.
While glasses are being clinked in celebration of the new achievement, stakeholders in the aviation sector have asked; 'how can the Cat 1 status be sustained considering the fact that countries like Ghana, Israel and Mexico once clinched the certificate it and lost it soon after? What can be done to ensure stakeholders in the Nigerian aviation sector do not go to sleep and allow standards drop? Will the perennial decay in airports infrastructure not dent the records? Won't government and aviation workers' fire brigade approach to aviation matters not scorch the new status? What are the milestones that need to be tracked to ensure that operations and procedures are in tandem with laid down rules?
In attempting to answer these posers, the Aviation Minister, Fidelia Njeze said: 'We'll use the next 12 to 18 months to stabilize the industry. Aviation is the catalyst for national development. Cat 1 will boost tourism, trade and commerce. We'll keep the standards because we will still be under serious watch by the aviation community. But NCAA has shown capability to sustain the Cat 1.
We're paying deep attention to infrastructural development. From the navigational facilities, meteorology to training of necessary manpower. Passengers will enjoy the dividends of Cat 1 as airport development will be a holistic thing', she stated. Also speaking in the same vein during an oversight visit to various aviation agencies Wednesday, the Chairman House Committee on Aviation, Hon Bethel Amadi reminded all stakeholders that the work has just begun as sustaining a record is often harder than attaining it.
He said the nation's aviation sector is now under heavy scrutiny by the US-FAA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), stressing that it would be very bad for the country if the Cat 1 is withdrawn as it is the case with some nations. Amadi said the committee will work hard to see that the parlous state of the airports in the country becomes a thing of the past.
He said the committee has given an ultimatum to the Aviation Minister to address poor infrastructure in Lagos and Abuja airports, after which it spreads to others across the country. The Deputy Managing Director of Arik Air, Chris Ndulue described Cat 1 as good development for the nation's aviation sector, adding that the company will soon de-register its A340-500 used for long haul flights under a foreign registration and crew.
After the de-registration, the company, he explained, will begin gradual integration of Nigerian pilots and crew into the service.
'Using Nigerian pilots and crews will save us a lot of money. Operating with Hi-Fly is an expensive venture but we were left with no option because there was no Cat 1. More so, we had to commence the Lagos-New York service at the time we did because we didn't want to lose our slots. But with Cat 1 on stream, the game will change for better', he stated. Another airline operator and Chairman IRS Airlines, Alhaji Isyaku Ibrahim said Cat 1 status will help airlines a great deal.
'We'll now pay much lower premium on insurance for airplanes and it'll also make aircraft leasing easier', he stated. The US-US FAA had on August 2 this year downgraded Mexico's safety rating from Category 1 to Category 2.
FAA said that Mexico is 'not in compliance with international safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization,' noting that it reached the conclusion 'following an assessment of the country's civil aviation authority.' The downgrade means Mexican airlines are disallowed from launching new service to the US and from codesharing with US airlines.
Existing service by Mexican airlines to/from US airports can continue. Mexico's Communications and Transport Department issued a statement to the Associated Press saying the downgrade was owing 'exclusively to administrative and organizational matters.'
Same issue affected Israel and Ghana some years back.
Before the attainment of Cat 1, part of the challenges of Arik Air was the dearth of manpower in the aviation sector. In 2008 when the company went to Toulouse in France to acquire the Airbus A340-500, there was no qualified personnel in NCAA type-rated on the type of aircraft to carry out the oversight duties.
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.
NCAA then was in a fix. It was compelled to begin massive investment in personnel training and licensing because as a regulatory agency, it must possess the staff to oversee all the activities in the aviation sector.
So, 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, after taken delivery of the airplane said the country should up its standards in the aviation business.
He said then: '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 left for Arik at that time was to go into dry lease. Dry lease is a situation 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, which Nigeria hitherto belonged to, 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. As all stakeholders pledge to work hard to ensure Nigeria retains the Cat 1 for eternity, it is hoped that such verbal promises translates into concise action.