By Uchenna Nwuzo
A lthough designated an international airport for years, the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, has never truly experienced any operational activities that correspond to that supposedly elite status.
Despite the expressed willingness of a number of foreign airline operators to fly directly to Enugu given it is the destination of a significant percent of their passengers, there still seemed to be a reluctance to change the status quo. The effect was the continuing absence of the installations and facilities necessary for international flights as specified by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
So the joy was understandable when the Enugu Airport finally got its first international flight on Saturday, August 24, 2013. The excitement wasnâ€™t limited to Enugu, it was felt across the entire South-East whose economy the expected boom at the airport will naturally impact. The trail may have been blazed by Ethiopian Airline, but aviation analysts say some other international airlines are just as willing to tap into the lucrative but largely ignored route.
A hint of how deplorable the situation had been and the exciting benefits the turnaround could yield was offered recently when the minister of state for aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, visited Enugu State last month. He had described the Enugu International Airport as â€œnot befitting of the status that it has attainedâ€ and promised to â€œdo the best we can to allow all international airlines apart from Ethiopian Airlines to operate out of Enuguâ€. I recall reading the minister outlining a list of challenges that could hamper that lofty dream. One of the cited infrastructural challenge that could hinder the hopes of making Enugu Airport a full fledged international airport was the absence of approach lights at both end of the runway.
It was understood that locals in the community had frustrated attempts by contractors engaged by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to instal this facility, the absence of which makes nighttime landing and takeoff impossible. Another challenging issue was the presence of two communication masts owned by the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) and the Enugu State Broadcasting Service (ESBS) obstructing aircraftsâ€™ flight path on takeoff.
Of course, it was gratifying that the governor of Enugu State had taken swift actions to address those hurdles.
Being more or less the capital and aviation gateway of the South-East zone renowned as a thriving commercial enclave – a positive indicator for passenger traffic – the potential for growth is quite huge. This could be gleaned from Ethiopian Airlineâ€™s increase of flight frequency to the route less than five years after launching its inaugural flight to Enugu. It also underpins the decision of Air Peace to make the airport the hub of its operations. The indigenous airline was on March 31, 2016, granted the right to fly to five countries comprising China, South Africa, United States (Atlanta), United Arab Emirates and India.
Sadly, the airline is today facing a major hurdle that may frustrate the dream to make the Enugu International Airport its operational hub. That dream includes a plan to build a standard aircraft maintenance facility which, apart from cementing Air Peace Airlineâ€™s status as a major player in the aviation sector, will make Enugu Airport further attractive to foreign airlines and, ultimately, boost the economy of the state and entire South-East region. But the problem is that the land on which the envisioned facility would be built is not owned by the airline. It belongs to the Nigerian Air Force or, implicitly, the federal government.
Recognizing the impact which the siting of such facility would have on the local economy and the fact itâ€™s consistent with his vision to transform Enugu State into an economic hub in the region, I understand that Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi had earlier promised to give the Air Force an alternative piece of land of equal or even larger size in Enugu in exchange for the piece of land. That request, I also understand, was restated in another plea to the federal government, this week, at the groundbreaking ceremony of the proposed Nigerian Air Force Ground Training Commandâ€™s headquarters in Enugu.
This is a welcome development that further demonstrates the governorâ€™s strategic vision. Notwithstanding the fact that lands are vested in the office of governors, it is noteworthy he still adopted a diplomatic approach. He has earned my huge respects for the maturity he often displays in resolving even the most seemingly intractable problems. And the wide commendation he has received since openly restating his request for Air Peace to be granted use of the land is just another strong validation of his problem-solving acumen.
Itâ€™s important to state that there is currently no other airline in West and Central Africa that flies directly to China, a major commercial destination for the Igbos. So, the operation of an airline – nay an indigenous one – from Enugu means a lot to the Igbos who are by and large the dominant and frequent fliers on that route. That is why the federal government has to act promptly to prove that this hurdle as with the delay in making the Enugu Airport truly international in designation and operations is not simply another bureaucratic bottleneck contrived to stifle the anticipated benefits that increased international flights will bring to the South-East.
But equally significant is what emerges when we look at the big picture. What we find is that Air Peace Airlineâ€™s vision is consistent with the federal governmentâ€™s hopes of making Nigeria the aviation powerhouse it once was, and stimulating growth in other sectors to boost the nationâ€™s economy and reduce the excessive reliance on oil.
â€“Nwuzo, a librarian, resides and works in Enugu.