Delegation of permit processing raises concerns about even-handedness

 - August 26, 2011, 10:10 AM

Civil aviation authorities in some developing world states appear to be turning to commercial flight-planning groups to handle the issuing of overflight and landing permits, raising questions about possible conflicts of interest and lack of transparency. But to the companies involved, this is simply a pragmatic response to a situation in which aircraft operators have faced frustrating delays in getting the permits they need due to lack of resources at the authorities concerned.

In July, Dubai-based Hadid International announced that it had been granted exclusive rights to handle permit requests for the ANAC aviation agency of the African state Niger. Meanwhile, Ivory Coast-based Africa Open Sky claims to hold exclusive rights to handle permit applications for nearby Mali and Benin.

This is the first time Hadid has become directly involved in issuing permits, although the 30-year-old company has long been active in filing applications on behalf of clients. It insists that legally it is still ANAC that actually grants the flight approvals and that it simply releases the clearances to operators.

But other flight-planning groups and aircraft operators, speaking to AIN on condition of anonymity, have complained that such arrangements can compromise the independence of national aviation authorities. In several cases, they said that receipts for the permits were issued directly by the flight-planning groups in question rather than being processed as official paperwork from the authorities.

In the case of Niger, overflight permits now cost €70 ($99), rising to €100 ($141) when required with less than 24 hours’ notice. Landing permits are priced at €100 ($141), or €150 ($212) for urgent cases. From these amounts, Hadid is allowed to deduct an unspecified commission.

One flight-planning executive told AIN that he could understand that under-resourced aviation authorities might well see the advantages of having a private company acting on their behalf in this way. However, he questioned the validity of a system in which not all the fees raised from the permits go toward improving aviation infrastructure. He also argued that it is anti-competitive for flight-planning and handling providers to have to go through a rival company to secure the approvals their clients need.

According to JetEx Flight Support, also headquartered in Dubai, it is not actually the case that the companies concerned have been granted “exclusive” rights to process permit applications. It insisted that it can still secure permits directly in Niger, Mali and Benin without having to go through an intermediary.

A spokesman said that JetEx has not sought to establish similar arrangements with states because it disagrees with a practice that it regards as monopolistic. “We think the way toward ensuring better market access and transparency is by keeping the rights of granting permits and/or imposing fees with the state and not assigning those rights to any commercial organization,” he commented.

At Universal Weather & Aviation, Jonathan Howells, regional vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, took a similar view. “Access to aviation authorities should be open to all credible companies who can settle invoices,” he said. “We want to ensure that monopolistic structures are discouraged because they can limit access [to airspace and airports].”

But another flight-planning group saw no immediate cause for concern. Matt Pahl, manager of flight operations for Rockwell Collins Flight Information Solutions, told AIN that he hasn’t seen any other examples of national authorities handing over exclusive rights for permit applications to a private company.

“This doesn’t impact us a lot. Hadid was one of several vendors we use and we have a good relationship,” he commented. “Countries make the rules and there is not a lot we can do to influence them. We simply want to provide the easiest and safest transportation so we can’t be in a position where we can’t get a permit. Hadid is responsive and we’ve always had confirmation of a request from their 24/7 operations center within a matter of minutes.”

Pahl pointed out that several other states, most notably Saudi Arabia, have long insisted on all permit requests being filed by a local company. “But it hasn’t meant that only one vendor is approved to handle applications, so we will have to see whether this [the Niger arrangement with Hadid] is a trend,” he concluded.