By Solomon Asowata
For the past five months, Nigerian domestic airlines have been grappling with scarcity of Jet A1, popularly called aviation fuel in the country.
The situation has led to disruption of flight operations as delays and cancellations have become the order of the day at most domestic airports.
Many travellers have been left stranded and frustrated following their inability to keep up with their various appointments due to their flights being rescheduled.
While the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration has expressed commitment to transforming Nigeria into a global aviation hub, experts believe that the country must summount the challenge posed by the lingering scarcity of aviation fuel in order to realise this dream.
According to the 2016 First Quarter Report released by the Consumer Protection Department of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), domestic airlines recorded 8,478 cases of delayed flights between January and March.
The report said a total number of 15,434 flights were operated by eight domestic airlines during the period under review, while 281 flights were cancelled.
It said the airlines in operation were Aero Contractors, Arik Air, Air Peace, Azman Air, Dana Air, First Nation, Med-View and Overland.
Arik Air, which operated 4,926 flights, topped the chart of delayed and cancelled flights with 2,801 and 99 respectively.
This was closely followed by Aero Contractors which recorded 1,762 delayed flights and 94 cancellations out of its 2,823 flight operations.
Air Peace operated 2,686 flights with 1,175 incidences of delayed flights and four cancellations.
However, Arik Air, in a statement signed by its Communications Manager, Mr Ola Adebanji, apologised to passengers for the cancellations which it attributed to the scarcity of aviation fuel.
The statement said the scarcity, which had been on and off in the past few weeks, had reached an alarming proportion as oil marketers were finding it difficult to cope with the requirements of the airline.
It said:”The scarcity is more pronounced in Lagos and Abuja hubs where a number of flights had to be delayed while awaiting supply of fuel and some are cancelled due to untimely delivery by the marketers.
“Some of the contributing factors to flight delays include for instance, inadequate and unserviceable bowsers as well as trucking distance to go back and forth between the depots and airport.
“Due to the inability of oil marketers to meet our daily fuel requirements because of the number of local, regional and international flights we operate, our operations are most impacted and passengers inconvenienced.
“We therefore appeal for the understanding of our guests as all stakeholders continue to find a lasting solution to the problem.”
Similarly, Aero Contractors, through its Media Consultant, Mr Simon Tumba, also decried the scarcity of aviation fuel in the country.
“Aero wishes to apologise to its dearest customers over the delay and cancellation of flight operations last night and this morning .
” We are experiencing fuel scarcity as our contract fuel suppliers are unable to supply fuel to us, while the other suppliers are unable to supply fuel to us due to scarcity of aviation fuel.
“We are taking appropriate measures to address this issue as soon as possible by engaging other suppliers to ensure a smooth, safe and secure flight operations for our customers,” Tumba said.
Worried by the situation, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has warned that it would not fail to sanction any airline which embark on unjustifiable or avoidable flight cancellation.
Mr Sam Adurogboye, General Manager, Public Relations, NCAA, said several reports from the Consumer Protection Officers (CPOs) and aggrieved passengers have inundated NCAA’s offices from across the nation’s airports.
He said: “Operators are advised to ensure tickets are not sold to air travellers when there are perceived or real hitches concerning sourcing of aviation fuel (Jet A1).
“While NCAA is not unmindful of the efforts being made by the airlines to avoid operational hiccups, passengers are similarly enjoined to exercise restraint and cooperate with airline officials during eventualities.”
According to him, it is noteworthy that the Federal Government of Nigeria is already taking measures that would ameliorate the paucity of Jet A1.
He noted that these steps would guarantee availability and allow operators provide adequate services.
However, Mr Ikechi Uko, the promoter of the Akwaaba African Travel and Tour Market, said the lingering fuel scarcity was affecting the brand and integrity of Nigerian airlines.
“Now, almost every Nigerian airline is having problem of brand integrity. We are having frequent flight cancellations and delays and passengers are kept waiting unnecessarily.
“No airline enjoys treating passengers like that.The situation will only be helped when the fuel is available.
“If it is not available, most foreign airlines will load fuel from other countries but for Nigerian carriers, they dont have such an option,” Uko added.
Proffering solution to the problem, a former President of the Aviation Round Table (ART), Capt. Dele Ore, advised the Federal Government to work towards local production of aviation fuel.
Ore told NAN that the government should ensure the refining of the product at the country’s refineries which would put an end to its importation.
According to him, Jet A1 fuel shares similar characteristics with kerosine and can be refined locally when the refineries have been restored to their full production capacities.
He said apart from ending its scarcity in the country, Nigeria would be able to export the product to other neighbouring countries in the West African sub region and generate more revenue.
On his part, ART’s President, Mr Gbenga Olowo, called for total deregulation of the petroleum sector, adding that the recent removal of petroleum subsidy by the Federal Government was a step in the right direction.
“It is a very good start by the government. Thereafter,market forces will drive price and not the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA),” Olowo said.
Another expert, Mr Sheri Kyari, Managing Director, Finum Aviation Services, advised the domestic airlines to go into strategic alliances and management which would cut down their expenses.
“Strategically for them, they can do code sharing locally. Two airlines carrying less than half load of passengers to a particular place is not ideal.
“They can review their operation and allow passengers to use one aircraft to get to the same destination,” Kyari said.
He explained that it would be very easy for domestic airlines to have a clearing house where tickets are sorted out and monies are transferred to whoever carried the passengers.
Asowaota is a Correspondent of News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)