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Without providing details, the Presidency announced last week that Nigeria had signed a Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) with five countries: Algeria, Congo, China, Qatar and Singapore. “With the execution of these instruments, it is expected that Nigeria’s aviation links with the respective countries will improve significantly”, said presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu.
Whatever may be the merit of those agreements, what worries is that given previous experiences in the aviation industry, there is no guarantee that they would be beneficial to our country. Nigeria does not have major airlines that operate international services yet it has huge passenger traffic to international destinations put at over five million per annum and airlifted largely by international carriers. Also, our country does not have a national carrier that could negotiate commercial service agreement whenever the airlines from these countries start their operations to Nigeria.
To the extent that Nigeria does not have a national carrier or any airline designated by the federal government to negotiate commercial agreement on its behalf, foreign airlines literally run away with exploitative commercial arrangements. That perhaps explains why many Nigerian policies on international air transport service seem to favour foreign airlines and these include multi-designation of international carriers to more than one airport in the country. This weakens the possibility of foreign airlines code-sharing with local airlines to airlift passengers from different airports to one airport, where the foreign carrier is expected to airlift the passengers to international destination.
However, while Nigerians await the details of the latest BASA, there are potential gains in having such agreement with China, Qatar and Singapore. These are the new destinations for many Nigerian businessmen and women. By those agreements, Nigeria has opened the channels for Nigerians to travel freely to these countries, so all immigration hindrances hitherto encountered would be eased. Also, a Nigerian airline, Air Peace, has been designated to operate to China, while Medview Airline is designated to operate to Singapore.
These airlines will benefit from the new cooperation between Nigeria and these countries but only if they kick off their operations in time to these destinations before airlines from China and Singapore start operating to Nigeria. China has large capacity carriers that Nigerian airlines cannot compete with and Singapore Airlines is one of the best carriers in the world. So with the odds stacked against Nigerian airlines, which are fragmented and small, how will they survive competing with these large operators?
Questions also remain on the BASA with Congo and Algeria. As a member of Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), the BASA signed between Nigeria and Congo would be subsumed by the open sky treaty, which allows airlines from the 23 countries that endorsed the treaty to operate freely to one another’s country. Before now Algeria is not known in Nigerian aviation circles, so the BASA agreement it signed with Nigeria would give it access to the huge travel market, but Algeria is not a well-known destination for Nigerian travellers. Algerian carriers would now queue to airlift Nigerian passengers to Europe and other destinations.
While rushing to sign BASA has become the pastime of aviation ministers, with over 60 of such agreements signed to date, the question has always been: of what benefits are they to a country that does not have strong airlines that can effectively compete with that of partner nations?