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Opinions of Saturday, 16 November 2013

Columnist: Adjekum, Odadie Kwasi Okatakyie

A Sustainable Aviation Sector in Ghana

: Is it a case of ‘Fixating on a national air carrier’ at the expense of other areas in need of development?

As an avid aviation enthusiast and professional who is very passionate about the eventual growth and substantial contribution of aviation to the socio economic development of Ghana, I found it not surprising that my dear Dzifa Aku Ativor ,the Transport Minister truthfully stated that the government was ‘broke’’ and did not have the capacity to whole heartedly take on the ‘quixotic idea’’ of resuscitating, resurrecting ,rejuvenating or whatever metaphor could be used to describe ,the dead,caput and buried national carrier Ghana Airways. Maybe I am being uncharitable to her, but in my earlier exposé, I had cautioned about the whole idea of our government trying to enter into this ‘ Coffin Corner’ of business, taking cue from our history of ‘exceptional’ skills at mismanagement and crass incompetence in national airline business. I think most Ghanaians are apprehensive of this whole national airline business due to the past crass incompetence and corrupt management that brought the ‘Golden Cow’ of Ghana Airways to its demise. There was much administrative inefficiency coupled with the inertia against innovative and positive management practices. Ghana Airways/Ghana International Airlines, I dare to say did not have any long term strategic plan and only subsisted on day by day ‘Faith based’ operations. How could an airline worth it salt operate fuel guzzling fleet, like the McDonnell Douglass DC 10’s and DC 9’s when peers were operating more modern fuel efficient aircraft like Airbus 330’s,Boeing 737 NG’s and Boeing 777’s? What about the bloated and inefficient staffing practices and the sheer lack of synergy between staff and management? Those were some of the problems which were exacerbated by governmental manipulations and micromanagement. Did Ghana Airways or the latter Ghana International Airlines have a viable business plan that could stand the rigours of the market and political forces? Were there any braces for business continuity? I would however give her the benefit of the doubt in the proposed public-private partnership effort and the subsequent 10 percent stake in any strategic alliance with investors who will be willing to sink their ‘kudi’ into this ‘ treacherous’ waters of airline business. My biggest problem is whether in selecting strategic partners for such ventures, it will be guided by prudent and sound business considerations with the genuine interest of the people of Ghana at heart or as usual the key elements of cronyism, partisanship and nepotism will become dominant factors? We need very experienced strategic partners both corporate and individuals, who would be ready to ‘untie the Gordian knot’’ that has shackled the airline business in Ghana for a long time. I am still intrigued by the fetish obsession of our governments to always attempt at reviving run down national airlines and I wonder whether it is out of a spirit of sovereign pride or just a foray into a political point scoring gymnastics. Since 1999, when our national carrier Ghana Airways was put on life support and eventual met its demise, various attempts have been made to resurrect it, all to no avail. Are our politicians and policy makers’ learning any lessons from such aviation business debacles?
The airline business is one very ‘ebullient’’ industry and now it has become very scientific aimed at studying all the complex variables that potentially could affect optimum performance and profit margins. For most airlines in the world, quaterly and annual losses are no strangers at their door steps and most end up content just breaking even. The industry requires prudent and strategic planning to weave through the intricate and sometimes treacherous waters of high fuel cost, aircraft lease and maintenance, crew training, insurance and operational taxes and tarrifs, coupled with the seasonal variation of both human traffic and cargo. In Ghana ,like most African and developing countries, the major issues are perceived and actual poor records of safety oversight, lack of adequate financial resources and physical aviation infrastructure ,Distant and sometimes limited connectivity between airlines and other inter modal transportation modules, The lack of consistent and viable policies and regulations to develop the sector, Governmental intrusion and micromanagement of the sector, Lack of continuity of business plans whenever there are changes or turn over in governments, the competition from well resourced and established nations with viable national air carriers and the biggest one, high operational cost due to unstable world oil prices.
It is my opinion that the government would be better of, rather building a solid infrastructure base for aviation, than just becoming fixated with this whole idea of building a national airline, which for me is just one of the tentacles of a very complex sector. The base should start with the formulation of a comprehensive Strategic National Aviation Plan of action over a time phased term. In the short term ,we should rather concentrate on infrastructure and regulatory overhaul . The sorry state of our four regional airports leave much to be desired and if we cannot improve aviation infrastructures like the runway conditions, runway and basic approach lights for night time operations, navigational equipment like Very High Omni range (VOR) and Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) , real time meteorological information for flight crew /dispatch and Flight handling Services at these regional airports, then I am afraid we are building a pyramid with the tip down and the base up. We need to overhaul our regulations to catch up with and meet international standards, in order to meet the statutory requirements of both economic and safety regulations of the industry. The enhancement of aerospace management, consumer protection and ultimate safety of air carriers in Ghana, should be the focus of the government and not chasing after a ‘mirage ‘of reviving a dead national carrier. The Ghana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) and Ghana Airport Company Limited (GACL) should be given some level of autonomy to eventually become business entities, such that they can be more financially profitable in addition to governmental subventions received. Who know, with time they can become independent of such subventions and function as viable business entities as done in some other countries. They can be able to source for funds outside governmental confines to improve human resources and physical infrastructure development. The role of government will be to have some level of shares and input in the strategic direction of these entities under the aviation sector. The continuous lack of a comprehensive and established aviation safety and accident investigation commission is very worrisome and does not engender a solid base in our aviation policy improvement drive. It is an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) requirement to have an independent aviation accident investigation and safety entity. The entity will spearhead and would be statutorily mandated to conduct investigations into safety occurrences in the aviation sector and also complement the regulatory efforts of the GCAA, by providing accident and incident reports, research analysis and proactive safety trend analysis to prevent the occurrence of aviation mishaps.
I know that one of the challenges facing aviation in Ghana is the lack of well resourced aviation personnel and aviation experts. The aviation management system has been plugged with some personnel who are sometimes overwhelmed beyond their capacity. This has been exacerbated by political manipulation in the selection of heads for our aviation entities, and sometimes incompetent and non qualified people are appointed into positions that require some level of comprehension of aviation technicalities. We need to tackle the issue of inadequate human resources by exploring the possibility and viability of our tertiary institutions running courses in aviation management, aviation technology, aerospace sciences and airport management as has been done in the maritime sector. In my previous exposé, I advocated for the University of Ghana to have a School of Aviation to churn out qualified aviation human resources. There has to be a concerted effort to link research in academia to industry requirements. The government should focus on its role of safety protection, adequate security at our airports and airfields, environmental concerns like noise and exhaust pollution and air traffic management infrastructure. There should be an effort to expedite efforts at transforming our airspace to become more dependent on satellite based air traffic surveillance and extension of our total radar coverage. We must also aim at introducing the automated dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) system to ensure efficiency and seamless traffic management. Satellite based navigation and procedures at our airports will ensure that even in marginal weather conditions, there could still be some level of operations. The performance based navigational procedures will expidite traffic management and reduces the impact on our environment.
The role of general aviation cannot be underestimated, in opening up the country in terms of total air transport coverage. For a long time little emphasis have been placed on general aviation, which is the area that deals with all civil aviation operations other than scheduled air services and non-scheduled air transport operations for remuneration or hire. Classic examples are aviation training, medical evacuation, pipeline inspection, maritime patrol, law enforcement, Air borne spraying, Fixed based operations, tourist and leisure flying. With more people becoming interested in aviation and the aim to improve and build more airstrips and fields in the country, as intimated by Minister Ativor recently at the Ho Airstrip, it would be prudent to put more emphasis on general aviation. For a viable tourism industry, one of the areas that require attention to ensure ease of accessibility to those tourist areas is general aviation. A better means of transport will be light transport aircraft, with short takeoff and landing capability (STOL) for these airstrips. The government must also play its role as the advocate for consumer protection, when multi-national and strategic partnered airlines starts engaging in price fixing and predatory pricing practices that will not inure to the benefit of the consumer. There should be a bold attempt by the government to protect consumers, by ensuring that stakeholders in the sector operate within regulatory confines and the requisite standards. As a long term strategic policy ,which must be drafted in such a way that it would have continuity even in the case of changes in government ,the focus should be on investment in a full fledged autonomous Aviation Training Institution (Secondary and Tertiary Level),which will be well resourced and accredited internationally, to train world class aviation professionals like engineers, technicians,pilots,dispatchers,air traffic controllers, aviation safety officers and administrators and that could evolve from the proposed School of Aviation at the University of Ghana. This training institution could earn substantial income for the government, through contract training as done by Ethiopia and South Africa. Other areas that could form the basis for partnership could be in the Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) business. As at now there is no heavy repair facility for Boeing, Airbus or Embraer in the sub region and most airlines are forced to undertake their scheduled maintenance abroad, at great cost. It would be prudent to explore the viability of becoming an MRO hub for any of these big players in the sub region and service airlines in the region, most of whom operate either or mixed fleet of these aircraft manufacturers. Can we envisage the jobs and human resource requirements that it would generate? What about the steep technology transfer gradient it will infuse into our educational institutions like the KNUST school of Aerospace Engineering. The direct and indirect benefit of an investment into aviation services industry like training and MRO’s would sustain our industry and put Ghana on the world aviation map. It will solidify our stakes as the hub of aviation in West Africa. The other area of investment apart from airlines could be in the cargo handling and freight industry as done in Kenya, where the government has a stake in Kenya Airways Cargo Handling Services. In all these proposals it should be a subtle presence, highly influenced by the need to protect public interest and ensure that regulatory standards are adhered to. The public –private partnership should be managed in such a way to ensure that all parties obtain optimum benefits. The PPP could ensure that there is performance based management (PBM) that will seek competency over cronyism and nepotism. The foundation of the venture will be to make profits and ensure business continuity. It is my fervent hope that aviation in Ghana will rotate into a gentle, sustainable climb and get to the echelons of the South East Asia and Middle East Booming markets and contribute to our socio economic development. By the way Dzifa, what would be the name of the new carrier, since that would determine the direction and destiny of the proposed carrier?
Odadie Okatakyie Kwasi Adjekum
Aviation Consultant