Chinedu Eze explains why Nigerian airports are active in the day, but quiet like ghost towns at night
Airports in many parts of the world are acquiring new responsibilities, besides their primary duty of facilitating air travel. Many airports generate over 70 per cent of their revenue from non-aeronautical services. Airports provide hotels, restaurants, gyms and sprawling duty free shops. These businesses now constitute their major activities and reinforce their value as passenger processing facility.
In Nigeria airports are grossly underutilised. They are simply used to process passengers. Their potentials as business centres are almost non-existent, except for fragmentary activities at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. Services are provided at highly outrageous rates at these airports, unlike what is obtainable in other airports across the world where shops are meant to attract both travellers and other visitors who come to patronise services offered at relatively low prices.
So the failure to exploit the business potentials at airports in Nigeria are major reasons why they are left abandoned after passengers have been processed. And because Nigerian airports are managed in very rigid and conservative manner, only those who wish to travel and close aides and relatives go to the airports. The situation is even worsened due to security concerns. But in other countries where there are security threats, businesses still blossom at their airports.
The major reasons why Nigerians airports are underutilised include irregular supply of electricity, lack of airfield lighting on the runways and taxiways to enable flights to land and take off in the night, under developed car parks and business centres as well as inadequate security.
Business at the nation’s airports may pick up when Nigeria has solved its intractable problem of epileptic power supply. It is after that time that airports in the country could be assured of 24 hours power supply. That obviously will galvanize activities at the airports. So the situation now dampens that possibility of utilising the airports to boost business and create employment. Most airports in Nigeria rely on generators for the supply of electricity. The day time airports are switched off after 6:00 pm and life goes out of such airports after that time.
Some airports have dedicated power supply from the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) but the state power company is unreliable. So poor power supply is contributing to the underutilisation of airports and its inadequate supply also influence the cost of products and services as the little businesses at the airports charge for the cost of operating private generators.
Lack of airfield lighting is also another major cause of airport underutilisation. In fact, it is estimated that domestic airlines lose about N10 billion annually because they cannot operate into many airports in the country after 6:00, forcing them to retire their aircraft after daylight operations. For example, airlines can operate till 10: pm to Enugu, Owerri, Yola, Benin and other airports in the country if there is airfield lighting in these airports.
None installation of airfield lighting in many airport runways in the country is drastically affecting airline operations; threatens safety and constitutes a huge loss to domestic carriers in addition to inconveniences to passengers.
In these airports, which include Benin, Enugu, Kaduna, Calabar, Owerri, the domestic runway (18L) of Lagos airport, airlines schedule their operational time to ensure that it did not fall into dusk.
Sometimes when there is delay due to bad weather and it exceeds the time for visual flight rules (daylight operations) given for landing and take-off at such airports by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the airline must have to terminate the flight.
This constitutes a huge loss to the airlines, the passengers who may have waited for hours for the flight and it is part of the poor logistics imposed on the airline by absence and obsolete infrastructure at the airports.
During the inauguration of the remodelled Benin airport earlier in the year, the Governor of Edo state after commending the Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah for the transformation of that and other airports in the country, pleaded that the Federal Government should install runway lighting at the airports so that “whenever we are summoned by Abuja in the night or early in the morning we will be able to use the airport.”
The former commandant of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos and security expert, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd) recently told THISDAY that government should have concentrated its energies on providing landing aides at the airports and concession airport terminal construction and reconstruction to the private sector. He believes that in that way government would concentrate and deploy enough funds to providing such safety critical equipment like the lightings on the runways, the taxiways at all the airports in the country, noting that this would facilitate safe and easy movement of aircraft in the night.
But many critics who blame the present administration for not providing these facilities, have failed to realise that some of these airports do not have airfield lighting since the past six or more years. In fact, in a recent interview the Managing Director of Arik Air; Chris Ndulue wondered why a runway should be opened without corresponding airfield lighting, describing it as an aberration. This is because a runway cannot be built without runway lighting, except for such airports originally conceived as daylight airport. Many attributed the duplication of the rehabilitation of the runway and provision of airfield lighting as two different contacts to corruption which cut through the entrails of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) at that period.
When the runway 18L was opened late 2008 it was said that the runway lighting would be installed the next year. But it was never installed and five years now the runway is still bereft of that critical facility, until last December when the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) installed temporary airfield lighting, pending when a permanent one would be installed.
The Aviation Minister disclosed at a recent interview with THISDAY that the Federal Government would dedicate this year and next year for the installation of safety critical equipment and that this would go side by side with the second phase of airport remodelling projects.
The Minister also explained why the installation of airfield lighting was difficult at the 18L of the Lagos airport and what government planned to do.
She said: “Six years ago (when the runway rehabilitation was completed), I wasn’t here; none of the people here was there six years ago. We met a non-performing contract (for the installation of runway lighting) there. A contract that had been almost 60 per cent mobilised, yet nothing was on the ground. And because you don’t want litigation you cannot just start without ensuring that legally you are on the right. That is the major reason you have not seen us do anything about that. Frankly, I refused to pay a man who had received 60 per cent of the cost of the contract six years ago and did zero per cent and then wants you to now renegotiate and pay him, not just 100 per cent but a 400 per cent increase on the original sum for the same contract. This is totally wrong as far as I am concerned. At least, I won’t be party to that.
“We have three phases on airfield lighting. We are having back up, on back up, on back up. This simply means that we are going to have the conventional one that is cabled, we are going to have the solar power one and in between, we are going to have the inverter. So if one fails you will have the intermediary, and then you have that solar power lighting, then the back up on back up is the generator, should the others fail. Eventually, in the next one year, we are going to have an independent power provider, which will save money used in fuelling the generators. That is what we intend to do.”
It is hoped that when this important facility is installed some of these airports will operate into the night. And this will earn the domestic carriers increased revenue as airlines like Arik Air would increase its frequencies to some of these airports”.
Chairman of Arik Air, Joseph Arumemi-Ikhide reinforced what the management of the airline has said that part of the reasons why it has not fully utilised its aircraft is because of the poor or non-lighting of some airports in the country.
“As the management of Arik said, we have not deployed up to 60 per cent of our capacity. The other day somebody wrote that by putting more flights in the air that we are putting more pressure on the aircraft. I find it very interesting. In the United States because of time difference, some aircraft are used for about 18 hours, but ours at maximum operation is about seven to eight hours a day. The reasons for this include poor airfield lighting, insecurity and others. For example, you cannot go to Owerri and Benin after 6:00 pm.
“Let me not be misunderstood that I am attacking anybody, I am just giving you the reasons why we cannot operate more hours with our aircraft, like 18 to 19 hours they have on the Boeing. Most of our captains who are supposed to do 100 hours in a month are flying 75 to 80 hours. So we still have more rooms, we can even add more frequencies.”
Some industry operators had suggested in the past that FAAN should concession some of these facilities at some of these airports. That after critical security review, parts of the airports should be given out to private investors to build shops, meters and greeters and entertainment venues, recognising at the same time the priority of security, noting that such businesses would ensure regular activities at the airports which such ventures would generate revenue for the airport managers, FAAN.