The Taraba State Government has found itself in a big mess over the purchase of two Embraer ERJ 145 airplanes for the proposed airline called Air Taraba.
The two planes, currently parked at Abuja and Kaduna airports, have not been put to either private or commercial use since they were brought from the United States of America into Nigeria in February 2012 and September 2014, respectively, according to findings by our correspondent.
How much the state government paid to acquire the two aircraft could not be confirmed as of press time, but planes.axlegeeks.com and aircraftcompare.com put the price for each of the plane at $21m (N4.137bn). The two planes, therefore, would have cost the state government not less than $42m (N8.3bn).
Some aviation officials close to the acquisition of the planes, however, said each aircraft was acquired for between $8m and $10m, because they were not brand new.
The state government had wanted to start an airline named Air Taraba, with the two aircraft, but internal political wrangling among the top echelon of the government, it was learnt, made it to abandon the planes in Abuja and Kaduna airports.
Findings from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Nigerian Airspace Management Agency and Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria revealed that the first Embraer ERJ 145 with registration 5N-BOZ arrived the country in February 2012, while the second one, with an American registration number N292SK, arrived in September 2014.
“The Taraba State Government wanted to start an airline called Air Taraba with the two planes and then buy more later, but the plan hit the rock following some internal political wrangling among successive governors and their camps after the air crash that involved the former governor, Danbaba Suntai,” a top official of the state government told our correspondent on condition of anonymity.
The source added, “The state could not start the airline due to disagreements that ensued among top officials after the air crash that involved Danbaba Suntai. You know there were series of infighting in the Government House after that crash.
“This made the airline project to be abandoned; and as such, the two newly acquired planes were abandoned. It was the disagreement that made the second plane to arrive very late because both were ordered at the same time.”
Going by the dates the two aircraft arrived Nigeria, the first one has spent three years and eight months on the ground without being put into any use, while the second has been idle for one year.
Aviation experts and chief executive officers of airlines estimated that the two 50-seater planes have lost combined revenue of at least N3.3bn for the combined period of four and half years that they had spent on the ground without flying.
Giving the breakdown of the estimated N3.3bn loss, the CEO said if each of the planes was assumed to have carried only 30 passengers in six flights per day for 20 days in a month, it would be generating N72m every month.
Also assuming that the aircraft worked for only 10 months in a year in order to allow time for regular maintenance checks, the first plane, which has spent 44 months on the ground would have generated N2.59bn in ticket revenue if it worked for 36 months at N72m per month.
The second aircraft is also expected to have flown for at least 10 months and generate N720m at the same rate of N72m per month.
These give a combined ticket revenue loss of N3.3bn.
To bring the planes back to service, aviation experts, aircraft engineers and CEOs of airlines estimated that about 50 per cent of the cost of purchase might be required.
They put this at a conservative sum of about $11m (N2.1bn) for the two planes. If this is added to the N3.3bn loss in ticket revenue had it been that the planes were flying, the state may have lost about N5.4bn aside the amount it used to acquire the aircraft.
The experts argued that having stayed on the ground for too long without flying, the planes would need total overhauling because the two engines of at least one of the planes would have to be replaced, aside other major components that might have expired.
An aviation analyst and Head, Research, Zenith Travels, Mr. Olumide Ohunayo, queried the motive behind the acquisition of the planes, saying the Taraba State Government was not sincere about using them for commercial operations from the outset.
Ohunayo said, “I fault the motive behind the acquisition of the planes. Taraba State does not have an airport that can accommodate those planes; it only has an airstrip. So why are they buying aircraft and wanting to run an airline service from Jalingo when the airport cannot accommodate the aircraft?
“The aircraft are being kept in Abuja and Kaduna airports. The business of airline from Jalingo is not viable. They should have fixed the airport first by turning the airstrip into an airport before going to buy the aircraft at all.”
The Chief Executive Officer, Centurion Safety and Aviation Security Consult, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd), queried why the aircraft had been on the ground for too long.
Ojikutu said, “The two planes are already due for a major maintenance check. This will cost a lot of money. Aside this, some of the components of the aircraft would have expired; they will need replacements. There are some components that expire with the calendar, while others expire based on the number of hours the plane has flown.
“Corrosion would have set in. I believe the planes are not being preserved based on any manual from the manufacturer. The two engines of each of the planes will have to be replaced. There are engine Airworthiness Directive on Embraer 145 that also needs to be done on them. All these will cost a lot.”
However, the Taraba State Commissioner of Information, Mr. Emmnuel Bello, said he would get back to our correspondent. He had not done so as of the time of filing the report.
But the Chief of Staff to the Governor, Mr. Rebo Usman, said plans were already at an advanced stage to lease the airplanes to an airline.
He said details of the plans would soon be unveiled.
“We have gone very far on the plan; we are working on all the nitty-gritty. We will very soon be giving the aircraft to an airline that has already accepted to be using them to fly the Jalingo route. We don’t have any plan to run a state airline,” Usman added.
Asked if the two planes would be given out on lease to the airline, Usman said, “I can’t give you the details now but that is what we are working on. We have an understanding with an airline already; I can’t give you the details now because we are still working them out.”
When probed further if the new administration in the state was concerned about the money it was losing on the two planes being on ground for long, the chief of staff said, “If the new administration is not concerned, we would not have entered into an arrangement with an airline to take them up.
“Let me tell you that the issue of having our state opened up to investors is even more important to us than the revenue issue you are even talking about.
On why the airplanes were allowed to stay idle for too long, Usman said, “This administration is just about 100 days old. You should have asked the previous administration.”
The chief of staff declined to answer further questions, insisting that the previous administration should have been asked the questions.