Civil Aviation Not Getting FG’s Attention, N3bn COVID Grant Insufficient – United Air CEO

He was on Channels Television’s Business Morning Show, a segment on our breakfast programme, Sunrise Daily, during the week.

The Chief Executive Officer of United Nigeria Airlines, Obiora Okonkwo and a graphics showing air fare price rise.


The House of Representatives Public Accounts Committee recently issued a one-week deadline to all private airline operators in the country to account for the sum of N4bn given to them by the Federal Government as a palliative fund during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 or refund the same in the absence of justifiable evidence of how the amount was spent.

However, the Chief Executive Officer of United Nigeria Airlines, Obiora Okonkwo, described the call by the lawmakers as a distraction. He was on Channels Television’s Business Morning Show, a segment on our breakfast programme, Sunrise Daily, during the week.

Enjoy the excerpts!

Looking at the data from the National Bureau of Statistics, we’re seeing airfare prices rise month to month, from December 2023 into January 2024. And I’m wondering how much can the average consumer take at this point.

Well, the cost of everything is rising in Nigeria and the reason is very obvious. It’s all about the inflation rate that everybody and every sector is experiencing. For us in the aviation sector, even the rate that you have today is still pitiable because, at that rate, I can assure you that the operator is absorbing the cost of an almost equal amount. If you have bought a ticket to fly at anything less than N150,000 to N200,000, somebody else is paying the bill and that’s the operator. We are operating at a huge loss now simply because we cannot meet up the speed of the changing rate of the naira (against the dollar). And we are very sensitive to the burden this could have on an average traveller in Nigeria. It is a very difficult time for the sector, and I hope something will be done very soon and quickly. Otherwise, you might see a whole lot of operators going under because the operating environment is very tough.

Looking at the official FX window, we’ve seen about three consecutive days of stability right now and I hope that continues, going forward. What are you seeing as the immediate solutions to be proffered at this time so that prices can moderate? What do you think can be done in the short term to bring some kind of sanity to prices in the short term?

We are happy with the success recorded so far in the last week and there’s hope that the naira will continue to come down, below N1000, probably. The government should look inward and find out where these problems are coming from. It’s not from our side. I believe that this rate is quite speculative. In the case of the FAAC, the government should look inward and make sure that these people don’t go into the foreign exchange market to mop up what is there. And the amazing thing is that these things are mopped up in cash and they are stored in some warehouses or stores somewhere and it’s not helping our economy. The government must do all it can to reduce the pressure on the naira and fund the forex market.

The government is struggling with a whole lot of revenue inflow. I’ve suggested they (the government) should quicken the process of taking the NNPC to the stock market. That will help them raise a lot of money and also download some of the NNPC assets that are in some partnership. They should do that.

I have no doubt that when that is done, the government should be able to raise between 10 to $20 billion. Something has to be done and the CBN should be bold. They should control the narrative. The CBN governor has been granting some interviews and letting Nigerians know what they are doing about that. That’s a good progress. They should do more of that. Certain bold steps must be taken without fear or favour on who that will affect. They should look into the banks to make sure that some of these diaspora inflows that we are supposed to access are coming in. And it has to be made available for the real sector and genuine people to use. I also should think that there should still be a special window for some sectors of this economy. Civil aviation is not getting the attention that it requires in this foreign exchange saga. The money, the language and the official money for aviation is dollar. I know other sectors are affected but in terms of category, aviation is the number one category. It is a catalyst for economic growth. And if we don’t do that quickly and it affects this industry negatively, obviously, the multiplier effect will be enormous.

I did mention earlier about the House of Reps told airline operators in Nigeria to account for N4bn COVID intervention fund. What do you make of this, now they’re calling for a return, that this money was not spent well.

To start with, the money that was given to operators was just N3bn, not N4bn. I guess that they (lawmakers) are probably not properly informed. When they are properly informed, there will be no need for this call. It’s not anything to worry about. It’s such a very minor and tiny money that nobody should be worried about. There’s no operator that money could even pay a one-month salary of its staff contingent. So I don’t think it’s an issue that we should spend any time talking about.

So, the operators won’t have any problem returning the money? Because the narrative is that some of the operators didn’t spend the money on what it should have been spent on.

During the COVID, some sectors were supported and even if you look at the money that was given in the aviation sector compared to the support that are equivalent in different parts of the world, that is ridiculous. It does not even solve any single problem. I think the problem is that the committee has not been properly briefed and that this money came from the Ministry of Aviation. It did not come as a form of loan; it came as a form of support, a grant to cushion the effect of COVID-19, which we consider very minor. We still feel that nothing was done to the industry.

I think that the call for a return (of the money) is just too much of a sound bite for the news. We are going through a whole lot and we don’t need that distraction now. So if they want to call for a return, any operator can easily write that cheque. This money came from the Ministry of Aviation. I know the National Assembly has good gentlemen who are doing their job. They had called for meetings a couple of times, but each time that we attended, the meeting did not hold. So, I’m surprised that they are jumping to this conclusion without even interfacing with the operator. My advice is that they need to sort for information from the Ministry of Aviation, they need to clear the conditions and terms for which that money was given.