Dunoma: Concession is the Best Option for Airport Management

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Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, Saleh Dunoma explains that the federal government’s resolve to concession major airports in the country stems from its inability to fund their development. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:

Recently the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) certified the two major airports in the country- the Murtala Muhammed and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja in accordance to the safety standard and regulation of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). What are the benefits of this certification and how FAAN will ensure that the new status is sustained?

First of all, let me start with the benefits of the certification, ICAO devised this certification in order to make airports keep up to the standards. You see it starts with the First Declaration. Anybody that wants to develop an airport must decide the aircraft size that he wants to operate in that airport. If he says that he wants an airport that will handle this type of aircraft; let’s say, Boeing B747. If your intention is to develop an airport that will handle a B747, then ICAO has a specification for you, in terms of the design and the operational parameters.

ICAO will tell you how many firemen you need; what category of fire you want, what is the length of the runway, what is the width of the runway and other conditions. So once you finish your design and it is implemented and the airport is up for a B747, then ICAO comes back to see whether what you said you did is what you did. Do you now have an airport that can handle a B747? Do you have the processes and procedures in place to handle a B747? Are you compliant with all the safety requirements? Are you compliant with the security requirement? Are you compliant with all the ICAO annexes as specified in handling this particular category of aircraft?
So they will come and inspect the airport. After the inspection, they will give a report. Of course, they will find gaps (shortcomings); there is no airport that is free of gaps all over the world. So they will have gaps, there are critical ones, there are ones that are procedural and there are ones you have to do a study on. So once they give you that, you have to come up with a plan which we call Corrective Action Implementation Plan. So you have to come up with that plan, once you submit the plan and you continue to implement your plan, they will come and also look at what you are doing and they check you off.

Once the inspection is completed, it means you have complied as far as their inspection is concerned, as far as your compliance to the annexes is concerned. Now, if that is done they look also into documentation. Do you have a safety plan? Do you have an emergency plan? Do you have an operational plan? Are these plans up to date? Because if I pick a plan of Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport and I open it and I want to talk to the fireman and the telephone number of the fireman is there, when I call he should answer. If I want to know who the airport manager is, the phone number is there. So you have to keep updating your records and your plans and your procedures so that they are up to date. This is because aviation processes and procedures are very dynamic.

Now, once you have done that what you have achieved is, you have achieved a safety level that is acceptable by the ICAO, and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority. So you have been certified as having fulfilled the conditions for the operation of that particular category of an airport that you intended from the beginning or from your declaration that this is an airport that can handle a B747 or B737. So you are certified based on that, and this certificate can be withdrawn, if you don’t sustain it. Because they will come after sometime do another inspection, depending on what the civil aviation wants to do. They will do an inspection and they will show you that this is the result of the inspection, you are okay in these areas and you are not okay in these areas. And you give them timeline and assure them when you will close the gap; whether a week, a month etc. If you fail to do that for two weeks or one month or so they will come back and withdraw your certificate. So our plan for sustenance is to have capable manpower in place.

That is why before the certification our staff were trained in various areas, in safety, in fire and rescue, in operations, in marshalling and what have you. In everything, even the people that did the documentation are all trained. So that will give you capacity to sustain the certification, so all these key departments that are responsible for the sustenance of the certificate are all trained and they know what to watch out for. So without even the inspection of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, if they see anything going down they can quickly make corrections. So this is the plan that we have for sustenance.

Training is the basic thing to sustain the new status of the airports; because if you bring a new person and he doesn’t know what he is doing and he doesn’t even know what to look out for, then of course even if the standard is falling he will not know. So the basic thing is training, once you train the personnel to the required level then they will watch out for the areas where there is deterioration in either the level of safety or infrastructure or any other area.

When will the new terminals being built by the Chinese in the five major airports come on stream as there are structural issues, which the engineers raised about power at the Abuja facility and the need to relocate the fire house and the control tower?

We are working hard to make sure that sometime next year, maybe by middle of next year. The two terminals in Abuja and in Lagos will come on stream because these are where we are experiencing upsurge in traffic. So since we have the same contractor handling the five terminals, we are asking the contractor to concentrate on Lagos and Abuja for now. When they are completed it will alleviate some issues as far as traffic growth is concerned in these two airports.

Now, the other efforts that we are making to get them on stream in good time is to make sure that other technical issues that are affecting or that will affect the operation of the terminal building are quickly handled. You can see the level of completion, this other issues that have to do with power supply, water supply, if you look at the building; it is like doubling the number of buildings at the airport. The one in Lagos is huge also; it is like doubling the old one, so in terms of power supply and water supply, we will double the power supply. In Lagos we don’t have a problem with power because we have installed enough capacity as far as power is concerned to handle the new terminal. All we need to do is to do some redistribution here and there then that terminal will be taking care of.
In Abuja, we have an issue, because if you look at the structure in Abuja, before the new terminal, the structure was small, so there was no need to install a huge capacity of electricity. So we now need to increase the capacity of our standby. As far as public power supply is concerned, or Abuja disco or Lagos disco is concerned, they can provide sufficient power but we are talking about a standby capacity now because of the requirements operating an airport; you need a standby capacity in case of power failure. In this case what we need to do is to improve the capacity of the standby facility for power supply in Abuja airport.

We are already working on the relocation of the tower and the fire house. We have done the assessment; we have located the place and we are planning that we will increase that capacity so that we will be able to accommodate this terminal in terms of power supply. There are other little, little issues like sewage system, water system but those ones are not difficult, the most difficult one is power but for sewage system, we can erect facility for the terminal alone and we can also have a water system for that terminal alone but power is a bit difficult, you know power generation is not like water.

So all those issues are being addressed and we are planning that by the time this terminal is coming on, all these facilities will be in place so that we can operate this terminal seamlessly. The same thing in Lagos, like I said, Lagos is even much easier because we have sufficient power supply to take care of the terminal and all we need to do is to just do some redistribution here and there and then that terminal will be ready.

There is this talk about having a train terminus in Abuja airport. Is it real?
Yes, a rail line has been extended to Abuja airport and this rail stops very close to the terminal. That is why if you look at the Abuja new terminal design, it is slightly different from the Lagos design. Abuja design has a public concourse that extends on top of the hill and there is road below the public concourse. We are going to have the rail terminal on the concourse and then the car park. So as soon as you come whether you are coming by road or by train, as soon as you get off your train or car, you just walk into the public concourse and then you walk and cross the bridge, you cross and you go to the first processing before going to the departure processing. So this is the difference between Abuja and Lagos.

There are issues raised recently during the Aviation Round Table Conference about the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu not having the needed facilities to operate international service. What is your reaction to this?
Well, when you say we don’t have facilities for international operations, I don’t understand that because we have the facility. The runway is there, it was extended so it is sufficient; that is why we have Ethiopia Airlines going into Enugu. So they have capacity, the terminal building is there, they have the international terminal built by the Chinese; although it is not operational, the current terminal building is sufficient, more than sufficient to carry the traffic. So as far as operation is concerned I think it is okay.

But what is lacking, like you mentioned, is the categorised approach lights. We have simple approach into Enugu and with simple approach you can go into Enugu. With the ILS (Instrument Landing System) that is at Enugu you can go into Enugu that is why flights are going there, anyway. But we had wanted to upgrade the approach to at least Category one from one side or Category one on both sides or Category one and a simple approach on one side, or Category two and simple approach on the other side. But we had planned that the state government will give us land because we don’t have authority on land.

When we started the expansion of Enugu airport, the state government acquired land and gave us to do the extension and to do also the approach light but unfortunately there was an issue with the compensation. As at that time when the former governor issued instructions to his people, that look, go and do the assessment and let me see, I will relocate the people that are on the approach, so that FAAN can have this land and to install their light. A bill was brought that was over N2billion to his Excellency (the former governor, Sullivan Chime) and he said that the bill was too high because there was nothing on that land. And if you are claiming that this is your land, if I am going to give you another land, then the compensation should be small, because there are no structures, it is just a virgin land. There are only two or three buildings that were at the foundation level, one of them was at lintel level. But the bill was so huge and the Excellency told them that they should go and review it since he is going to give them another land in another location, the compensation should be minimal.

Since then up till now, nothing has happened and we cannot move in. Already some land owners in those locations have been approaching FAAN to say we should come and pay compensation. We said we cannot pay compensation; FAAN cannot just wake up and say we want to pay compensation, there are processes and procedures and it depends on which government agency is going to pay the compensation. Enugu state government promised us that they will give us the land; that means they will take responsibility of acquiring the land and handing it over to FAAN so that FAAN can use it for that purpose. Up till today that issue has not been resolved. That is why the installation of the airfield lightening system cannot be finished. Until they do that, until the land is formerly handed over to us, we cannot move in.

What is your analysis of the progressive report on passenger movement in Lagos, Abuja and other airports?

You know because of the recession generally all over the world, there was a little drop in passenger movement and aircraft movement also. But it is picking up again because all the airlines that reduced either frequency or stopped coming are applying again that they want to come back. They have started and they are looking for additional frequencies, so passenger movement is picking up. Aircraft movement also will pick up. Yes. there was a drop especially in 2016 up to early part of 2017 but now there is a gradual positive growth again. And this is in conformity with what ICAO and ACI (Airport Council International) and all the aviation bodies have predicted, traffic will double in the next 15 years. So you can see the trend that is going on, you can see the airlines are applying, they want to come. And within the country the easiest means of transport is air. I was with his Excellency, the governor of Edo State (Godwin Obaseki) the other day, he told me that look, road infrastructure is very difficult to develop because if you want to construct a road from Benin to Lagos, you can imagine how many hundreds of kilometers you need to construct and how long it will take you to build and how costly to maintain it.
We are lucky. Nigeria has developed so many airports across the country, so we have these runways in place, all we need to do in some cases is to either extend or expand and install some few things there and you are there. So he told me that from the look of things he would prefer Benin airport to operate 24 hours so that people can go in and out at any time. For security reasons and the difficulty in the development of road infrastructure and the militants all over the place, it is easy and safer for you to fly in Nigeria.

So we are working with him to improve on Benin airport so that Benin can operate 24 hours. He is ready to help us and we are collaborating with state government in order to improve the situation. So it is faster, easier and safer to fly. And for government, it is also cheaper to maintain three kilometer runway with the airfield lighting than to maintain hundreds of roads. We are not saying that we should not develop roads but it is faster and easier to do a little thing on the airport and then improve the situation.

Now Hamattan is already here and you know every December Harmattan haze disrupt flights. How are you working with the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) to abate the effect of weather on flights?
Yes there are technologies out there that we can deploy to assist in helping pilots to fly during bad weather and to land and take off during bad weather. But let me tell you, you must respect weather, you can have the technology there but there are safety limits that were also prescribed; so it must be respected. You can say, I have the technology and I can fly; no, with all the technology there must be respect for weather. We are doing our best; we are working with NAMA to install the airfield lighting systems, to improve on the ILS to bring in the aircraft to the airport. But still it goes beyond certain limits that must be respected. Technology is there, yes, we will do our best to install them but when it reaches a certain limit it is advisable that you hold on.

There is suggestion in FAAN that every airport manager should be paid about seven to 10 percent of the revenue generated from that airport in addition to the annual amount of money that is paid to each airport annually. They are that this will motivate the airport managers to become innovative and generate more money. What is your view?
Talking about revenue, airport revenue depends on majorly flight operations, and passenger movement. These are the most critical factors there are other factors but these are the most critical factors. And FAAN and other aviation parastatals are there to facilitate these two—the aircraft movement and passenger movement. So we have to concentrate on that because there is a lot to do on that. Any other thing is complementary in generating additional revenue for us, we can encourage our managers to do that and yes they are free to do that; but not to the detriment of the two major things that I mentioned—passenger movement and flight operations.

Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited is always alleging that FAAN owes it huge debts. What is the critical issue between FAAN and Bi-Courtney?

Well, Bi-Courtney is a concessionaire, we had an agreement with them that he will operate the terminal, which was before now domestic terminal, he developed it on a BOT (build, operate and transfer) basis and he his running it on that. Along the line there was an issue and we are in court with him and I am sure these issues will be resolved either in the court or if government decided that we come out of court and resolve it, then we will resolve it. Since the issue is in court this is the only thing I can divulge to you.

The federal government has decided to concession the airports, starting with the major facilities but some FAAN workers are agitating that government should make the agency autonomous, which would give it freedom, arguing that concession would not be successful. Do you agree with them?
What kind of freedom will you give FAAN that it will operate without interference? We are a government organisation, there is no amount of freedom that you will give us that we will not be influenced, we will be influenced. We are influenced by the environment, by the business, influenced by conditions. So the issue of concession, concession is also an influence of what is happening in the economy, in the environment and in the industry. Before this time, government can decide that you should go and build and airport in so and so place and it is built. That was how all the 22 airports that we are managing and other airports that we are helping to manage are built.

But today we just talked about doubling of traffic in the next 15 years, how do we provide the infrastructure? Right now, the terminal buildings that we are constructing is being done through a loan. Now, let’s not forget that the oil revenues are not there and government has a lot of contending issues security, health, education etc; there is no way aviation can compete with these. Security for example, without security there will be no development, now since the oil revenue is very low and government revenues are dwindling what do we do? What is the solution? This is the influence I was talking about that we are influenced by the environment, by the industry. What do we do? Government decided to take a loan and for me a loan the way I see it is just after fulfilling the bank conditions that the banks gives you money. Any time the loan matures they will come back to you and say you should start paying their money.

If you default in the agreement there are clauses, they will come and take over and they will take over under their own terms, based on the agreement and they try to collect the money until they recover their money. This is what happened to Arik, and Aero in the industry and I am sure in other industries also it must have happened. But concession is to look for somebody who knows the business, who is ready to take risk and to share the risk with you. The Bank is not sharing any risk with you but for the concessionaire he knows the business, you are going to share the risk, you will manage it together and you will share the proceeds until the end of the contract when he hands over the facility to you.

Because you are not selling the facility, he is helping you to invest, to develop and then you run it together until he recovers his money and then he moves on and gives you the asset. So for me it is a better relationship than somebody that will just give you money and wait until you default. But from the conditions, if it is done properly, if it is done transparently, if there is proper competition, concession is better than the loan. So this is the way I look at it because for us to develop the needed infrastructure to meet up with the growth in the industry which is quick, that was why we went for this loan.

There was a rating done by sleepingatairport.net this year and Port Harcourt airport was third worst in the world, while Lagos airport comes fifth worst airport in the world. When will Nigerian airports be excluded from this list?
Let me tell you, we in the aviation industry we have organisations that are overseeing us. There is International Civil Aviation Organisation, which has to do with safety and security. We have ACI that is also looking at safety, security and economics of the airport. We have IATA which is an association of the airlines and all these groupings, especially the ICAO and the CAAs (Civil Aviation Authority), are there to look at safety. That is why we do the certification, can any organisation come out and say; no, Abuja airport is not certified or Lagos airport is not certified? People are looking at different things, airports are not designed for you to go and sleep; they are designed for you to pass through as a passenger and get to your destination. Yes, some of them are designed for 24 hours but it is not designed for you to come and sleep. That is why if your flight is cancelled and you have already checked in airlines take you to the hotel. We don’t have hotels at the airport, we are just trying to provide few rooms at Murtala Mohammed International Airport, few rooms at Abuja airport but you are running an airport, you are not running a hotel.

The best thing is to plan your operation in such a way that all passengers pass through without sleeping at the airport. Because the longer they stay at the airport the more they stretch your facilities because those facilities are not designed for them to come and sleep. If somebody sleeps at the airport it means he will go to the toilet like three or four times, he will need a shower, are the airport designed for that? No. Airports are designed for you to come and pass through.

Now, those groups are looking at other aspect of passenger comfort when they come to sleep at the airport but this not supposed to be the case and in the case of Port Harcourt, it has been under construction; unfortunately we had issues with the contractor which the federal government has resolved and he has gone back to site and he is working now on that. So they did their assessment when we started the reconstruction of Port Harcourt airport.
The more you put together construction and flight operation and passenger movement the more complicated it becomes. So we try to avoid it but the assessment was done when the building was under construction. So that assessment as far as I am concerned has nothing to do with aviation, it has something to do with passenger comfort that we cannot provide when the building is under construction.