Deplorable State of Airport Facilities

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Political interference, lack of funding and bureaucracy have impinged on the performance of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, leaving the nation’s airports in a deplorable state, writes Chinedu Eze

One of the reasons cited by some of the foreign airlines that left Nigeria was the poor airport infrastructure. Both the airlines still operating in Nigeria and the ones that have left, express concern about the runway at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.

Rehabilitation works have been carried out on that runway and a lot of money has been expended on it; yet, it is still in very bad condition, threatening the safety of aircraft that land and take off there.

On December 4, 2013 a Saudi Arabian cargo plane damaged its landing gear in a major incident at the Abuja airport runway, which led to the closure of the airport for several hours, from the night of December 4 to the evening of the following day. This resulted in flight disruptions and huge revenue losses for both domestic and international airlines.

There was also another major incident involving South Africa Airways flight that got damaged when it landed on the same Abuja airport runway in early August 2016, which forced the airline to cancel the flight and lodged the passengers in hotels for four days. Only recently, reports indicated that Emirates aircraft was also damaged when it landed on the same runway.

This encapsulates the harrowing experience of airlines that operate in Nigeria due to the collapse or near collapse of airport facilities. While many put the blame on the incompetence of FAAN management, others blame it on government interferences and not allowing the agency to have breathing space to do its job.

Abuja Second Runway

In 2009, the then Vice-President of Nigeria and later President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan signed a contract for the building of a four-kilometer runway at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. The cost of the project was put at N65.5 billion by Julius Berger, which was to handle the project. However, when the contract was taken to the National Assembly for debate and approval, it became mired in controversy, as the legislators said the cost of the project was outrageous.

Efforts were made by Julius Berger and the then Minister of Aviation, Babatunde Omotoba to justify the cost but the legislators stuck to their guns and the contract was nullified. Although the contract was a FAAN project but the agency did not have much to say and neither projected or defended the project. It was the same when the concession to rebuild the domestic terminal at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos was done. The old terminal was gutted by fire. The concession was literally snatched from Royal Sanderton Group to Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited by government when the former was unable to start the project at the stipulated time. Directives were said to have come from the Presidency to FAAN to allow the second company to start work.

This shows that government always interferes with the affairs of FAAN and so it does with the other agencies. Agency insiders say due to these interferences, FAAN management has to always kow-tow to the whims of government officials, from the Minister to the Presidency. This has created a room for malfeasance by top FAAN officials. With such interferences, FAAN top officials allegedly create loopholes to exploit the agency that according to inside source, over 35 percent of the agency’s revenues are diverted to private pockets.

Airfield Lighting

FAAN’s failure to develop modern airport infrastructure has negative bearing on airline operation. Airlines lose huge resources because they are forced to curtail their operations due to inadequate facilities. Out of 22 airports under the management of FAAN only six have airfield lighting. So airlines cannot operate into these airports after 6:00 PM because of inadequate airfield lighting. The consequence is that the aircraft are underutilised, the airlines lose huge revenues put at over N30 billion per annum.

Part of the poor infrastructure is the inability of FAAN to provide adequate and uninterrupted power supply to the terminals that many of the airports in the country close by 6:00 pm because they could not run their generators after that time. The consequence of this is that in case of emergency a flight in distress that desperately wants to land at the nearest airport may not find any to land under such emergency.

Security

Aviation security expert and the CEO of Scope Centre, Adebayo Babatunde once told THISDAY that airport security apparatus is porous when aviation security officials compromise by soliciting or accepting inducements. In other words, no matter how sophisticated and IT savvy security equipment is if those who enforce security at the airports compromise their positions, the system is porous and compromised.

It has become a sing-song complaining about how aviation security officials solicit for money from passengers. An official who works at the international terminal of the Lagos airport alleged that most of the security operatives are involved in the extortion racket, from FAAN’s security officials to other security operatives at the airports: Customs, Immigration, Quarantine and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). There had been failed efforts in the past to end this illicit activities but most of the security officials that come to the airport regard working there as a privilege because of the money the make there.

Concession and Commercialisation

Many industry experts believe that FAAN is not maximising its potential; that if allowed to operate on its own and take advantage of all the opportunities at its behest, it could be generating revenues 10 times what it is generating now.

Aviation expert and the CEO of Aglow Limited, Tayo Ojuri said if maximised advert placement alone could generate over N30 billion annually for FAAN as part of non-aeronautical revenue because people who come to the airport could be attracted by the adverts and they have the resources to patronise the products and services advertised.

“There could be product launch, advert placement on boarding passes, on the road, at the terminals and other parts of the airports. When you look at the passenger traffic and other opportunities, including non-aeronautical, cargo, leases and other services, including concessions and without the bureaucracies and interferences, FAAN could generate huge revenues,” Ojuri said.

But he noted that FAAN cannot afford to fund the establishment of a second runway at the Abuja airport because it no more receives subvention from government; rather, it now pays money to government and the cost of runway, which would include taxiways, airfield lighting and other facilities could by up to N50 billion.

“If FAAN is commercialised it could maximise its potential and could take loans to develop infrastructure at these airports. For example, Ghana commercialized its airports as Ghana Airports Company Limited and ECOBANK gave them $250 million loan because the bank knows it will pay back. They have used the money to extend the runway. They are building new terminal now and they know they will generate the money and pay back the loan.

“FAAN cannot build second runway on its own but if there is concession or commercialisation through the right process the agency would be able to take loans because it has great potential in the passenger throughput, aircraft traffic and all other indications,” Ojuri said.

According to him, FAAN is currently operating at 55 percent of its full potential but he noted that government interference cannot be solely blamed for the lackluster performance of the agency, noting that FAAN management has to show commitment and create for themselves core performance indicators, which the management should strive to meet and when it cannot meet these indicators, it should not turn round to blame government.

Challenges

A former Chief Operating Officer of BASL, Christophe Penninck, in a recent presentation said Nigeria need well developed airports, noting that airports must develop for airlines to grow. He remarked that major airlines in Africa have well developed airports and these include South Africa Airways, Air Seychelles, Air Mauritius, Ethiopia Airlines, Kenya Airways, TAAG Angola Airlines and Mango.

Penninck said the challenge in Nigeria is that the country lacks both strong airline and a good airport.

“The airports are beset with many problems, which include no constant electricity, legal issues tampering development, high taxes on importation of equipment and spares, unavailability of foreign currency and too many airports,” he said.

But he noted that Nigeria has a great future in aviation development because the country has huge population, so domestic travel is important and as the largest economy in Africa there are a lot of economic activities with a large Diaspora population, which is important.

The Future

Penninck believes that with successful concession the country should aim to have a private sector driven airport management with constant electricity, landing and navigational equipment upgraded and that the fiscal environment must change and that domestic airlines must get some level of protectionism, adding that agricultural good must be transported by air to boost aviation and also to improve food distribution in the country.

But many Nigerians doubt that government can carry out successful concession without controversies and there is the question of how the workers of the agency would be settled.

Inside source told THISDAY that beyond media reports and public assertions about government’s intension to concession the airports, there is no concrete plan to effectively carry out concession plan that will benefit the country and also amicably settle the interest of the workers.

“What government should do is to comemercialise FAAN, just as Ghana and South Africa have done their airport management agency. I bet you, we have skilled workers that will turn the airports around. The alleged lack of commitment may be due to the fact that you may not know what government will do next to the agency. Recently they just recruited about 400 workers without due process and these workers were just imposed on us. That is not the way to have a good performing airport managing company. They should give us a chance before talking about concession,” said an official of Air Transport Service Senior Staff Association (ATSSSAN), FAAN branch.