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AVIATION SECTOR: FILLING THE MANPOWER GAP

By NBF News
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The capital intensive nature of aviation business, coupled with global financial meltdown that hit most businesses recently has made aviation development quite slow. The effect of this is that many airlines have packed up. Most of the existing ones are recording losses regularly and as such can no longer train the required personnel, as at when due, to replace ageing hands.

However, some few smart ones have merged, like Air France/KLM, British Airways, American Airlines and Iberia, among others. This is the case with airlines in Nigeria and most parts of Africa.

The result of this fusion is that as more aircraft, especially the latest jets are being acquired, more hands will certainly be needed to man them and hence, more training needed. The same goes for ground handling, airport operations and maintenance.

Indeed today, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the available human capital to complement the development in the aviation sector. From the Middle East, to Asia, to the United States of America and Africa, the story of insufficient human capital is the same.

However, the severity of the manpower drought varies from clime to clime. Sufficiency of personnel is vital in the aviation sector, as inadequate manpower remains a major threat to safety and security. Nations are further fortifying their training institutions with adequate funding and equipment and interestingly, Nigeria is not left out.

The Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT) Zaria is fast regaining its lost glory with better funding and competent management under the leadership of Captain Adebayo Araba who was once a student pilot and an instructor in the college.

The college today now has about 24 serviceable trainer airplanes and recently acquired a brand new TBM 850 from Doher Socata at the cost of $35million. It equally boasts of a multi-media simulator and another simulator, which will soon be installed. The Rector of NCAT in a recent interview with Daily Sun in Zaria said the college is on the verge of commencing a 24-hour training programme to increase the number of pilots it churns out yearly.

More so, the World Bank has promised to provide the college with airfield lights for night training, instrument landing system and other navigational facilities. He also pledged that soon, expatriates will vanish from Nigeria as the management is hell-bent on addressing the perennial issue of manpower dearth in the industry.

Today, the global aviation scene is laced with big players such that the available and experienced professionals are scrambled for on an hourly basis.

This category of airlines are ready to offer the best industry package to any professional with proven track record and willingness to work. The mega carriers in the Middle East like Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia Airlines are dangling juicy carrots at pilots in Africa with a view to poaching them. China announced recently that it needs about 3,000 additional pilots to manage its growing aviation business and this sent fear down the spines of African carriers as they consider themselves most vulnerable.

The struggling airlines in Nigeria are finding it hard to retain their pilots and crew. This has made some of the few professionals become unnecessarily arrogant. Some airlines management allege that some of their experienced pilots and crew keep requesting for arbitrary salary increase, threatening to leave if their request is not granted. Most times, the domestic airlines management always slug it out with the pilots, engineers and crew over emoluments.

It was in this light that the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr Harold Demuren explained that the nation's aviation sector must evolve a workable strategy aimed at training and retaining personnel needed to develop the industry.

Demuren expressed fear that rich airlines in Asia and the Middle East remained threats to Africa as they have the financial backbone to employ any category of worker. He thus suggested that female pilots and engineers should be trained as they are harder to poach than the men. The fact remains that these mega carriers have become a threat to many nations, such that the matter is being addressed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

While the problem of manpower dearth may not be so horrible in developed economies, as they engage in massive training of personnel, it is actually the bane of the aviation sector in developing economies like Nigeria. The willingness to sacrifice huge sums of money in personnel development is not usually in the front burner of the domestic airlines in Nigeria.

After the demise of the former national carrier, Nigeria Airways Limited (NAL) in early 2003, training and retraining of pilots, engineers and other professionals was practically halted. That airline was the bedrock of manpower development in the country. Most of the ageing professionals, especially pilots, in the sector all have a stint with the airline. NAL trained hundreds of pilots and engineers during its time.

However, it is imperative to note here that the reason for the stagnation in training was simple: Manpower development in the aviation sector is akin to a huge capital project. Worse still, most of the trainings, quite expensive, are very regular and mandatory. As such only NAL and perhaps Okada Air at that time could afford such 'luxury' of expensive training. What most of the airlines did was poach the professionals developed by NAL.

As at today, it costs about N7.5 million to train a pilot in NCAT from the scratch after which the fellow earns a Commercial Pilot's License (CPL) and multi-engine rating. This is about the cheapest in the world and the duration of the programme is averagely 72 weeks. Thus in a sector where the airlines are struggling to break even and sustain their operations; in an industry where airlines are laden with the burden of debt arising from accumulated and unsettled bills, massive training becomes exception rather than the rule.

Again, when Nigerian airlines considered the option of training a pilot or an engineer overseas from the scratch and putting him/her through the ladder to garner experience before manning a sensitive position in the company, they knew it was an expensive long term project. As such, they preferred to shop for ready made hands abroad.

This further reduced the patronage NCAT would have ordinarily got. As at today, Arik Air and Aero are the highest investors in training and that accounts for their robust operations and appreciable manpower level.

The death of the national carrier obviously dealt a hard blow on the aviation sector as that marked the beginning of manpower dearth in the sector.

Training literally stopped and consequently, no fresh hands to take over the baton from the spent forces.

More so, the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, (NCAT) Zaria that used to enjoy the patronage of NAL that sent a huge number of pilots and engineers for various trainings was not spared from the recession.

The school somewhat became docile and since the management at that time lacked good marketing strategy to attract more students, NCAT began to sink.

According to the Chairman of Aviation Round Table, Capt Dele Ore, the peak of NAL's crisis was the beginning of NCAT's crisis. Funds for operations depleted considerably and as time went on, the college slipped into a moribund state. In fact at a time, it could not graduate pilots for about 7 years. At this point, the aged hands in the industry were over-flogged.

Pilots, crews and engineers could no longer work according to the rules. The mandatory crew rest period was abused and safety was threatened. Pilots that ought to retire were begged to continue. Same was the story of the engineers and Air Traffic Controllers. As the industry grew without corresponding growth in manpower, upcoming airlines had no option than to import expatriates to fill the manpower demands. The affected airlines paid dearly to have them but the fact remains that they have no other option.

The manpower dearth is also affecting the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) as engineers who are trained on modern airplanes are few. As a matter of fact, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules states that for a Civil Aviation Authority to function its oversight functions optimally, it must have trained and experienced personnel in all areas of civil aviation.

However, the case is somewhat different in Nigeria. The pace at which an airline like Arik Air acquires modern airplanes is so rapid that NCAA does not have ready officials to oversee it. For instance, it was a tug-of-war certifying the B737-700 of the airline at first. When they arrived Nigeria, there was inadequate number of oversight engineers to handle the airplane.

Worse still, as at the time Arik Air acquired a brand new Airbus A340-500 in December last year, there were no officials of NCAA trained and rated on that wide bodied airplane. Arik was left with no option than to leave the aircraft with its French registration so that it remained under the control of the French Civil Aviation Authority.

Overseas, before an airline acquires a brand new airplane, officials of the country's CAA are trained long before the airplane is added to the fleet; so that the issue of who the performs oversight function does not arise. More so, with such training, no one will query the capability of the CAA to handle it. Experts say Nigeria ought to by now have grown to that level of matching its facilities with right number of personnel.

Unfortunately, it is still groping behind some African countries like Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa.

According to the Rector/Chief Executive of NCAT, Capt Adebayo Araba, the college as at the time he took over in 2007 had lofty visions that were not backed up with appropriate actions.

The NCAT boss, who is the first student and instructor of the college to become its Rector/Chief Executive, regretted that the college, which at inception, could boast about the best in the world was left to decay to the extent that students spent close to 10 years before they could graduate. Araba in his maiden interview with the press said he was welcomed by only two serviceable airplanes for training. He also met very few instructors and obsolete equipment laced with other anomalies.

Indeed a visit to the college reveals equipment mismatch which occurred over the years.

For instance, there are about three simulators bought by past management of NCAT that are of no use to anyone in Nigeria. Such equipment were acquired via a faulty contract decision and till date there are still lying there.

Good enough, the present NCAT management led by Capt Araba has been able to talk the World Bank into sending the airplanes out to France for refitting and then brought back to be deployed into full use.

Those were part of the rot stunting the growth of the college. More so, the problem of the school is not unconnected with the usual blight in government establishments such that a host of those who manage government agencies run it with underlying selfish interest.

However, having learnt about the rot, Araba immediately fixed some of the grounded planes and that shot up the number of serviceable airplanes to about 20 today. More so, he quickly assembled his colleagues who worked for various airlines to return as instructors. Today, the issue of stagnation in NCAT is over and pilots are graduated within 18 months as stipulated by law. Araba told Daily Sun in an exclusive chat that his vision is to chase out expatriates and give their jobs back to the Nigerians that really deserve it.

He further said his annual target is to churn out at least 50 pilots annually to address the manpower problem in the sector. 'The issue of manpower dearth worries me a lot. Let me also say that not only is the issue worrying airline operators alone, it is also strangulating the entire aviation industry. From air traffic control, to meteorology, to engineers and aeronautical information service officers, the story of shortage of professionals is same.

You know more and more airlines are coming in and as such require more manpower. But all that will soon be a thing of the past. But let me say the process will be gradual as there is no quick fix in aviation.

You have to follow the books. You're guided by international procedures. But now that we're back in full steam, we'll deal with the issue of manpower dearth. It'll be done within the confines of competence. We've to ensure that only qualified students graduate from the college. There's no favouritism here. We can't afford to politicize our operations here', Araba said.

Today, the college is partnering with all the 36 state governors to sponsor brilliant students in the field of science to become pilots and engineers via NCAT's training. He is also partnering with various aviation agencies and some private sector organizations for the same purpose. Araba also revealed that the college is on the verge of acquiring a multi-million naira simulator for pilot's training.

The simulator is expected to be ready for operations by November this year. The NCAT boss further pointed out that the simulator will reduce training cost and duration a great deal, adding that the college is working closely with the World Bank that has promised to provide some of its infrastructural needs like runway airfield lighting for night trainings, some navigational equipment and latest meteorological facilities to boost training. Going down memory lane, the Rector recalls how robust the training college was at inception wondering why it was allowed to degenerate to the level he met it.

'Let me take you back. I can tell you categorically that when this institution started in the early 60s, this college happens to be the only training institution, I mean abinitio, pilot training institution in the world with simulators. The college then could boast of one multi-engine simulator and about 3 or 4 single engine simulators that were brought in by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

And when the problem of the college started, they lost all the simulators. But now we have a listening Minister. I've been to him and I presented the old story to him. And he's of the opinion that simulator should form the core training machinery we have on ground. And he has agreed in principle that we should get the simulator. The importance of simulator cannot really be over-emphasized. And you cannot really emphasize it until you're inside the simulator itself.

To explain it clearly, simulator is a replica of an aircraft. There're lots of things you can do inside the simulator that you cannot do in a typical aeroplane for safety reasons. For instance, engine fire cannot be demonstrated in an aeroplane, but can demonstrate it in the simulator.

You can simulate fire in the simulator to see the reactions of the trainee crew. But in an aeroplane you cannot because you can't light up an engine in the air because you're training. That is just one of incident. In fact, we have many failures you can easily talk about during flight that cannot simulate on board except the simulator. With the simulator, trainees will be able to appreciate a lot of things. So that highlights the importance'.

He further said he is determined to work hard to ensure that NCAT become the pillar of aviation training in the West Africa sub-region as it once was.

He is also appealing to Federal Government to help release the approved N3.6 billion Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) funds to enable the college embark on other major projects that will take it to the next level. According to the Director General of the NCAA, Dr Harold Demuren, training remains the bedrock of the nation's aviation sector.