Addressing the Airport Infrastructure Deficit

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Chinedu Eze writes that facilities at the nation’s airports must be upgraded to international standards to make the aviation sector more competitive

Industry experts say a major setback in the Nigerian aviation industry today is the infrastructure gap.

Over the years, the infrastructure at the nation’s airports, were not maintained. In fact, the facilities were left without regular maintenance and as such as most of them are now in dilapidated state. The airports lack hitech equipment, good air conditioning system. In some airports, the runways either lacked lighting or they were poorly marked.

Airport operators are obliged to ensure safety and security of flight operations; they are obliged to ensure efficient but fast passenger facilitation and comfort. For instance, there should be comprehensive flight information display system, easy communication (wifi, media etc), comfortable and secure seats, transit hotels and possible transit visas. These days every good airport should have meeters and greaters and other necessary facilities to improve comfort of passengers.

Outdated Facilities

Chief Executive Officer of Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited (BASL) Christophe Penninck in a very acerbic tone had in a recent presentation excoriated airport facilities in the country and concluded that they were out of tune with modern idea of airport infrastructure. Expectedly, he lauded the domestic terminal of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos (MMA2), which was built and managed by BASL.

He said the condition of airports in Nigeria are still below acceptable standard, noting that runways are still ill equipped, terminal buildings don’t have the minimum in terms of passenger facilitation.

Penninck said compared to MMA2, which is an exception, there has been heavy investment in automation, there is automated car park, self check-in with full Baggage Reconciliation Solution (BRS), automated gates for security and passenger tracking, adding that MMA 2 is run like a business and all the airport stakeholders benefit.

He said modern and well-equipped airports prevent accidents with smart light, building management system and in terms of security checks, they are done through CCTV, BRS, Dual Vision system, X-ray machines, passenger tracking and manifest printer. In the area of facilitation, there are usually self-check-in, Common User Passenger Processing system (CUPPS), automation of various areas (car park), mobile apps etc.

“Nigeria has to rebrand its airports. The current image of the airports is low.
London Heathrow and many other airports are fully private and an example of investments and implementation of new technologies to the benefit of all stakeholders,” Penninck said.

He stated that for an improvement in passenger facilitation, security and safety, the only realistic way forward for Nigeria is privatisation of her airports. He noted that various models are available, but majority shareholding should be private, adding that all successful airports in Africa are run like private companies.

“The airport is a gateway to the country and the first impression a foreigner has of an nation. There must be amassive investments in technology,” he said.

Effective Management

Privatisation of airport is not a sin qua non to its effective management. While many industry experts say airport privatisation is the way to go, it has been realised that privatisation does not succeed all the time, especially in some countries. Recognising that every country has its peculiarities and with increasing terror threat, many industry observers say that it would be better for airports to be under the management of the state. This will enable government to ensure security and safety of the airports and minimise insider threat and a situation private investor could compromise security for money, which in Nigeria is not impossible.

In fact, Airport Council International (ACI) Director-General, Angela Gittens had warned about airport privatisation and advised that it should be followed cautiously and looking at the only successful privatisation of airport facility that had taken place in Nigeria, which is the BASL built and operating MMA2, it has been dogged by controversy. While BASL accused the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) of not acquiescing to the agreements it reached with BASL, witnesses to the agreement point at grey areas that were overlooked when the agreement was signed.

Again, effective management of a terminal of an airport does not indicate that when the company is given up to 22 airports, it could efficiently manage them because a terminal is a mere fragment of an airport. Also, without pricing control by government, privately owned airport facilities could charge exorbitantly, taxes that would eventually be paid by passengers through the airlines. This happened when MMA2 started. The charges introduced were outrageous, which forced airlines to shun the terminal until there was a compromise by the then Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr. Harold Demuren.

FAAN’s Infrastructure Renewal

FAAN’s greatest achievement in the last few years was the successful audit of airport facilities carried out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in 2016. This has enabled the planned certification of four of its major airports located in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano. Although before this certification would be carried out, there are some gaps identified that would be closed. FAAN in the last two years has concentrated on the provision of airside facilities like the rehabilitation and marking of the runways, provision of airfield lighting and reinforcing security at the airside areas.

When certified, the airports would be recognised worldwide as meeting all safety and security standards and it would receive international recognition and approval for any kind of aircraft to fly and land at the airports.

This would further boost the image of Nigeria in the comity of nations as a country with very high safety standard with secure airports; only very few countries in Africa have been so recognised.

Also the federal government is building five new airport terminals which would be completed later this year or early next year. In addition to that, FAAN said it has been striving to modernise its airport facilities.

On Monday, the Managing Director of FAAN, Saleh Dunoma said that construction of the 14 perishable cargo terminals would be hastened up as soon as there was enough funds for the works, disclosing that the federal government had two years ago, designated 14 airports as perishable cargo terminals with plans to construct and upgrade them to international standards.

 He explained that some equipment for the cargo airports have arrived but works would progress as soon as there were enough funds, adding that the Authority is working towards getting the best terminals for airport users across the country.

Updating Facilities

In order not to be left behind and in the face of competition in the West Africa air transport market, FAAN has been striving to renew facilities at the airports. Recently it engaged a bank to upgrade and brand its departures at the international wing of the Lagos airport and it installed wifi at the Lagos and Abuja airports, improved air conditioning at the terminals and also provided more security equipment and personnel to check passengers and their luggage.

Dunoma said a lot has been done to improve on safety of both the airlines and passengers at the airports.

According to the FAAN boss, work on the airside in some airports has been completed, adding that these can be attested by the pilots that use the facilities.

Dunoma explained that passengers would soon start experiencing better facilities as soon as the new terminals were put into use, noting that work has reached advanced stage.
He assured that the agency would commence work by prioritising six of those cargo airports by completing them as soon as fund was available and remarked that the revenue generated from the airports would be channeled to complete others.

Passenger Comfort

About three years ago, when passengers arrive at the Lagos airport from different overseas destination, they would not be sure whether they would collect their checked in luggage or they would come the following morning. Then the carousels were old and creaky and stopped when stressed with heavy bags from traders who most often returned from Dubai and China, and these happened often. Then the carousels were changed and that problem has been solved.

THISDAY has also observed that FAAN, unlike in the past, has become conscious of satisfying its customers, the airport users. The toilets at the international wing of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos have started wearing better looks; the FAAN staff has become friendlier.  The toilets at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT), which is the domestic terminal under the management of FAAN, are now very neat and the personnel are becoming passenger friendly.

There are still areas that require attention. For instance, a situation where passengers climb to two floors before boarding their flights at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, is one issue that should be addressed. The Abuja airport managers did not consider the plight of the physically challenged.  Also, passengers wish to see better and improved avio-bridges; but they appreciate the new buses acquired by the agency to move passengers to the foot of the aircraft at the airside. They also appreciate the cleanliness of the airport facilities, which have been improving and the reduction of touts at the Lagos and Abuja airports. It is believed that the new airport terminals at the four major international airports and Enugu would meet passengers’ expectations.

Spokesman of FAAN, Yakubu Dati agreed that in today’s world, airports are no longer mere departure and arrival points for aviation. They have become big businesses globally, actively driving the development of the air transport industry alongside other key stakeholders.

Apart from providing critical capacity for current demand and future air transport growth, airports are major engines of socio-economic impetus to the regions and countries they serve. They are also symbols of national pride and prestige when properly managed. That’s why they are usually a source of significant public interest to both users and non-users alike.

FAAN should automate its system, especially the check in system. When it took CUPPS system being operated by Maevis and handed it over to SITA, the international company has not shown better efficiency. The Flight Information Display System has become less visible and there are a lot of delays at the Immigration counters and central search areas, where at peak time passengers spend too much time waiting to go through the X-ray machines.

Compared to the last four years, there have been tremendous achievement by FAAN, but airport users are of the view that a lot more needs to be done to make the aviation more competitive.