From childhood, Ijay Usifo had wanted to be a pilot. He nurtured the dream and after his graduation from the Federal University of Technology, Minna, where he studied mechanical engineering, he worked briefly and proceeded to a flying school in Florida, United States.
After 15 months, Usifo graduated as a young pilot and obtained the Private Pilot Licence and returned to Nigeria in early 2016 to get more training and experience.
He says he spent about $80,000 (N30.5m) within the one and half years and hoped to earn a decent living working for any reputable airline in the country. But, almost two years after, with no opportunity of at least a job interview, he says he is becoming frustrated and losing faith in the system he hopes to help grow.
Usifo explains, “I have always wanted to fly but it has been frustrating; you invest so much in yourself but the system doesn’t support you. It should be that when you train, you should come back and find something to do, no matter how little.
“It is capital-intensive to train as a pilot; it costs me a total of $80,000 to train in Florida; the tuition fee was between $70,000 and $72,000, then add the cost of living for about 16 months. It is not as if I haven’t tried, but airlines always have different excuses why these jobs are either not available or should not be given out.”
Like Usifo, Ibrahim Yusuf enrolled in the aviation school in February 2014, graduated a year and a half later and has remained unemployed since.
“I got my Private Pilot Licence from the Phoenix East Aviation School, Florida and my Instrument and Commercial Licence from the Air Transport Programme. I wanted to practise in Nigeria so I came back in December 2015, converted my US licence to a Nigerian licence to make the process easier but nobody has replied my resume because nobody has put in a word for me,” he says.
After several attempts to get jobs, Usifo and Yusuf have both moved on to other things; while the former currently works with his family business, the latter has gone ahead to take up an offer from an online retailer.
“Most unemployed Nigerian pilots end up relocating away from the country or getting into other ventures,” Yusuf says.
When young pilots are employed, they are type-rated, meaning that they get a regulatory agency’s certification to fly a certain aircraft type that requires additional training from their employer, but Hafeez Usman, says he went a step further to get a type-rating on Boeing 737 Classic from the US for $11,000.
Almost four years after, Usman says he is still waiting, hopeful that someday he will get to live his dream of flying people to their destinations.
“I wanted to have an edge over others because the airlines kept telling us that we needed to be type-rated to have an advantage, but after shuttling between Lagos, where most of the airlines are based, and Abuja where my family resides, I have resigned to fate. I just got tired,” he says.
The young pilots allege that to get a job in some domestic airlines, they are asked to pay between $7,000 and $15,000 for further training despite having the minimum requirement of 250 flight hours as experience.
Not a bribe, it’s official
In certain quarters in the civil service, it is ‘normal’ for some officials to ask for some form of bribe in order to get applicants employed, but in the case of these young pilots, they allege that airlines make it official for them to buy their own employment.
A source in one of the airlines says it depends on the airline and the agreement they have with the pilot.
“If the airline is not capable of training the pilot, they ask him to pay and negotiate his salary based on what he has paid,” he adds.
Yusuf states, “We are asked to pay $7,000 for employment; some airline officials demand $10,000 just for them to give us a job; apart from the money you are expected to pay, you must also know someone who will refer you. You pay for them to employ you and it is official. Not all the airlines do this, but most of them are involved; and after paying, you have to wait for about six months before you can resume.
“All these airlines are looking for pilots but that doesn’t mean they are going to employ you because they have other important people. When will our resumes ever get to them when they have other important people on their lists who have paid? It is not about merit; it is about who you know. So, if your parents are average Nigerians and they managed to raise money to send you to a flying school, you may remain unemployed for a long time.
“But when you pay and you know someone, even if there are no vacancies, they will always create one for you. So, your 250 hours may not count much at the end of the day.”
A recently employed young pilot, Olusola Bello, says he paid about N7m ($19,500) before he could get a job with one of the commercial airlines.
According to him, it is official as you either pay in cash to the chief executive officer or into the airline’s bank account.
But, even that does not guarantee automatic employment, as those who manage to pay have to wait for their turn to begin to fly.
“It is frustrating but a lot of young pilots do it so often that it is now seen as normal. I will not advise anyone to do what I have done but you know how it is when one is without a job; depression may set in, so why not spend the money if you can afford it?” he says.
An industry source states that it is an open secret that airlines ask for money to employ pilots, and blames it on lack of regulation to stop the pilots from leaving for greener pastures after their employers spend thousands of dollars to train them.
He adds that over 80 per cent of investors who are into aircraft charter services in the country prefer to employ expatriates as this helps them save some money on the long run.
“There is no law to keep them down; nobody is going to spend $50,000 training a pilot who he cannot guarantee will stay; you can as well get a ready-made one. They just walk away and your money goes down the drain and the airline is forced to start again,” the source says.
The Manager, Public Relations, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Sam Adurogboye, says that as in other professions, there are no regulations to restrict pilots from moving from one airline to another.
“There are rules guiding every practice. In labour law, people can always change their jobs. It is a challenge all over the world. Pilots are constantly looking for where they give them the highest pay, accommodation and other allowances,” he says.
He adds that there have been cases of airlines that bonded, which means they reach an agreement with a certain pilot to work for some number of years before leaving and it carries penalty of some fees.
Adurogboye explains, “But some airlines come up, pay the bond fee and take those pilots away. So, who do you blame? That is poaching; but as regulators, what we do is to call them together and talk to them.
“There was a time airlines were poaching our engineers who we train regularly too. I
t is not a thing that can be regulated, and it is certainly not within the purview of the NCAA. We don’t set up airlines and so cannot employ pilots for them.”
It takes a lot to become a pilot
Many young people nurse the idea of becoming pilots and, according to the NCAA, the minimum age requirement is 16 and a Student Pilot Licence issued by the regulating agency.
To make this happen, there are five civil aviation training schools in the country. These are the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, Zaria; International Helicopter Flying School, Enugu; Landover Aviation Training School, Lagos; Aeroconsult Training School, Lagos; and the International Aviation College, Ilorin.
The NCAT and the IAC produce about 20 pilots each year, while the other schools train people in certain levels of airline management and also take cabin crew courses.
However, the process of training to become a pilot is one of the most expensive anyone can get in any part of the world.
According to findings, in the US and other countries, it costs between $60,000 and $80,000; while in Nigeria, the cost starts from N7.5m for the NCAT and N15m for the IAC.
According to the Rector, NCAT, Capt. Abdulsalami Mohammed, the school’s fee is subsidised by the government to make it accessible to Nigerians, but at the IAC, Ilorin, the total cost is between N15m and N17m, including feeding and accommodation for a period of 15 to 18 months.
Giving an insight into what it takes to become a commercial pilot, the Rector, IAC, Capt. Nurudeen Abdulkareen, says civil flying requires different stages that a potential pilot must pass through.
He adds, “For a young man going into the school to fly, from zero hours he goes through series of classroom trainings, passes the exams before the requisite practical training, then he gets the private pilot licence, which is a single engine flying that requires him to have a 50-hour flying experience, but he cannot fly for compensation.
“If you must fly for compensation or profit, then you move on to commercial pilot licence, which is double-engine flying, and you are required to have about 150 hours; most people go for 200 hours, this allows you to fly for a commercial airline.
“Then you move on to instrument rating; there is also a rating called multi-engine, which requires you to put in 25 hours of training. After these trainings, you become a commercial pilot with instrument and multi-engine rating and that ends the basic flying. Depending on who you want to fly for, you are then type-rated, maybe after you have been employed, or you rate yourself and add that to your CV.”
He says the same process is also required for flying helicopters.
Dearth of skilled manpower versus unemployment
Globally, the aviation sector is known for employing a large number of people. According to figures from the Air Transport Action Group, over 9.9 million people work directly in the aviation industry.
In Nigeria however, despite the number of unemployed pilots, engineers and others, stakeholders say that for over a decade, airlines and the general domestic aviation industry have suffered from dearth of critical personnel needed for an efficient sector.
The import of this, according to them, is that the industry has remained on its toes rather than flying.
Figures obtained from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority show that as of the first week of December 2017, there were 2,347 registered pilots in the country made up of 1,738 Nigerians and 609 expatriates working for eight passenger airlines, six cargo carriers, five helicopter companies and other charter carriers.
In a recent interview with The PUNCH, the Chief Executive Officer, Aero Contractors Limited, Capt. Ado Sanusi, said pilots were in short supply but in high demand.
However, the Rector, NCAT, Mohammed, recently stated that over 300 Nigerian pilots were unemployed.
Investigations revealed that most commercial airlines employed mostly Nigerians. Air Peace and Med-View Airlines, for instance, employ about 99 per cent indigenous pilots, while Dana Air pilots are about 85 per cent Nigerians, yet, the rate of unemployment keeps growing.
The blame game
Stakeholders posit that several factors account for why airline operators put their trust in expatriate pilots ahead of indigenous ones, leading to unemployment. These, they say include unavailability of experienced captains to man their cockpits, which they blame on the collapse of Nigeria Airways, which led to the dearth of critical manpower required in the domestic industry.
According to them, this is because the defunct national carrier invested heavily in personnel training, boasting of the best in the industry while it operated.
“The residual Nigerian manpower being recycled domestically today are products of Nigeria Airways,” an aviation consultant and Chief Executive Officer, Belujane Consult, Chris Aligbe, says.
While airline operators in the industry feel that it is up to the government to train personnel in the industry or create a conducive environment for the operators to invest in human capital development, some stakeholders feel they (airline operators) should employ pilots and train them to meet their needs.
“Passing the blame around will not solve the problem. A perception can say it is up to the airlines to train; that is a fair argument but that does not solve the problem. They have just identified the problem but do the airlines have the capacity to train the manpower required? No,” Sanusi states.
According to the Chairman and Managing Director, Air Peace, Allen Onyema, who is particular about who sits in the cockpit of his aircraft, it costs a fortune to train pilots who also earn a lot of money as salaries.
An operator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the government should be blamed for whatever problems bedevilling the aviation industry.
“How can airlines employ pilots when they are going down daily? The government gives six or seven landing rights to foreign carriers instead of empowering domestic airlines to distribute for them, thereby creating more jobs for our youths. It is unfortunate, but these pilots are just part of the 65 per cent unemployed Nigerians,” the operator notes.
The Aero Contractors CEO, Sanusi, explains that all airlines train pilots and other staff every year but there should be a concerted effort by the government to ensure that manpower development is encouraged.
“There is a shortage definitely, and not only in Nigeria but globally; and I think that the Federal Government should make efforts to ensure that this gap is addressed. As a country, we should come together and understand that this is a problem and it should be addressed as a country-wide problem and then we should tackle it as a challenge and make sure that training is done not based on airlines but done nationwide,” he adds.
Aligbe, who was also the public relations manager of the defunct Nigeria Airways, says most pilots trained now are not due for commercial operations.
He adds that they need more training and the airlines have no time to employ them because they don’t want to lose money and will rather employ those who are already flying.
Aligbe states, “The airlines are not positioned to employ and train them for at least six months before they can fly; that is what national carriers do; they create the opportunity for them to be trained and pass them on. Nigeria Airways was doing that; almost all the airlines of the past had pilots trained by Nigeria Airways, whether it was Okada Air, Chachangi or many others.
“This time, there is no airline willing to do that. That is what national airlines do in other countries. Aviation is unlike any other profession like banking, where fresh graduates begin to contribute as soon as they graduate. Without a carrier that can take care of these responsibilities, we cannot get out of the situation.”
The way forward
Adurogboye says one of the ways to decrease the population of unemployed pilots is for the government to set up a system whereby before a foreign airline comes into the country, it will be mandated by law to employ a certain percentage of indigenous pilots.
“If this regulation is put in place, we will enforce the law; but we should also bear in mind that we can’t create a law that is not applicable elsewhere,” he says.
On his part, Abdulkareen notes that the best way out will be to bring the pilots, airlines and the insurance companies together at a forum, where each stakeholder will say what they want.
“Regulation is also a major issue. But, let the airlines tell us the kind of pilots they want, they can then approach the banks to finance the training of their pilots and then guarantee payment once the pilots start to work. Government really needs to come in to build capacity and help the airlines with overhead costs or they will keep employing foreigners,” he adds.
The Chairman, Airline Operators of Nigeria, Capt. Nogie Meggisson, says the entire system needs to be corrected and put right not just for the pilots but for the industry to take its rightful place in economic development.
An industry source, however, confides in our correspondent that the airline operators are working to end the problem.
“We have a lot we are discussing on that issue and very soon, we will take a decision on it; it is a big problem because you can’t take a fresh pilot from school and give him a job; but we are working on a way forward and very soon it will be a thing of the past,” the source says.
The President, National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers, Galadima Abednego, says NAAPE is also working on a proposal to get the Federal Government to set up a trust fund to help tackle some of the problems being faced by pilots and engineers.