The aviation fuel crisis

Against the backdrop of the failure of public transportation on land and its practical non-existence on water, the epileptic aviation service in Nigeria has lately been a national embarrassment over which government and other relevant authorities should be ashamed.

The crisis in the sector should have been foreseen for a long given the country’s inability to produce much-needed petroleum products locally including Jet A1 or aviation fuel, the scarcity of which has plunged the airline industry into disarray for months.

The result includes disruption of flight operations, very expensive fares, and general uncertainty that have left passengers and businesses with terrible experiences.

The spectacle of frustrated stranded passengers in their thousands at the nation’s airports has suddenly become the order of the day, enacting a sense of bewilderment at how and why one of the world’s largest oil-producing countries can come to this sordid pass.

Curiously, the argument that the crisis is global because the aviation industry is international by nature is hardly tenable when viewed from the relatively smooth operations of airlines outside the country.

Nigerians would be much less worried about the ugly state of aviation services if they had a safe and efficient alternative to road transportation for instance. But this is non-existent with widespread insecurity, particularly kidnapping.

Before now, road transport users or vehicle owners had suffered the same fate with the scarcity of premium motor spirit and consequent high price; a recurring shame which government appears to be unable to redress immediately.

Just as Jet A1 is scarce and expensive, so are cooking gas and kerosene for domestic use. Kerosene presently sells for about N800 per liter. The scarcity of JET A1 and kerosene, similar products in composition, has interestingly united both the haves and the have-nots in agony.

For a crisis that became visible in the past three months, the pressure on airlines has become unbearable. It is not surprising that they threatened to shut down operations. With irritating delays and cancellations of flights, scores of passengers are daily stranded at airports across Nigeria. Businesses are adversely affected and precious productive man hours are lost. The situation has been compounded by scarce, expensive foreign exchange. Operators have warned that the dire situation could worsen and push airfares higher as more carriers battle to stay afloat.

It is ironic that despite the huge dislocation and discomfort to passengers, most seats on the busy Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano, and Kaduna routes are always fully booked. Where available, the prices range between N75, 000 to N110, 000 for one-way economy seats. Round-trip tickets range between N130, 000 to N180, 000, depending on route, airline, and time of purchase.

Amidst the crisis, Nigeria’s oldest operating carrier, Aero Contractors, suspended operations over its depleted fleet capacity to operate reliable scheduled operations.

The airline has about eight out of its nine airplanes on the waiting list for routine maintenance but lacks foreign exchange to purchase spares. And less than 24 hours after Aero Contractors suspended operations, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) suspended Dana Air operations with immediate effect, citing an inability to run safe operations and meet financial obligations. With 10 local airlines suddenly down to eight; along with the scarcity of fuel, the effects are telling on local travels.

The aviation industry is one of the critical sectors of the economy, which no country can afford to toy with. In an age when rapid movement is the norm for economic development, the industry is one of the most desirable avenues towards fulfilling that need as air transport is one of the fastest ways of ferrying persons, services, and products.

It is lamentable that a country that prides itself on the largest economy in Africa cannot produce enough fuel because its refineries are not functional while over-dependence on imported fuel, fraught with corruption as it is, has practically grounded Nigeria. Now that sourcing foreign exchange is almost impossible, the prospect of the inability to import will sure compound the prevailing scarcity.

Also, there are logistic problems over-dependence on imported fuel. These include distribution challenges as discharging of vessels bringing in Jet A1 and other petroleum products are done in the same Jetty. Thereafter, the loading of trucks for distribution to northern cities like Kano or Abuja takes considerable effort and time over dilapidated roads.

It is high time the government did something to end the chronic aviation fuel scarcity. Whatever efforts are being made to revive the refineries should be intensified. Also, against the background of the non-availability of needed foreign exchange, the government may wish to create a special forex window for the importation of aviation fuel to mitigate the problem at hand. But a more lasting solution is to rejuvenate the economy and make it functional.

It is hardly comforting that the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Timipre Sylva has been seemingly concerned, although he said the government has essentially liberalized the sector and in fact, the importation of Jet -A1 is largely in the hands of the private sector. He has promised to do everything possible to find a solution including looking at countries where there is immediate availability of the product so as to solve the problem. Many Nigerians believe the government’s concern is self-serving, as air transportation is almost the exclusive preserve of the rich and top government officials.

Building new modern refineries, of course, is the viable solution. It is unfortunate that the government has failed in this regard; nor could it rehabilitate the existing ones, thereby pinning its only hope on Dangote’s Lekki Refinery in Lagos, which is still under construction.

Ultimately, Nigerians are suffering from the massive failure of government on all fronts. The situation will not change until governance is enthroned and nurtured by responsible officials who will not wait for a simple problem to develop into a huge crisis before showing concern.

Source: The Guardian

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