By  A N I E T I E   U S E N

The Minister was visibly surprised by what he saw. His joy was conspicuous and written boldly on his face. Since he became Nigeria’s Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development on August 21, 2023, Festus Keyamo, a brilliant senior lawyer and politician, had been agonising publicly about the lack of world class aviation facilities in the country.

But after a three-hour working visit to the Victor Attah International Airport in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, on Friday morning, January 16, 2024,
Keyamo, stood tall and confidently declared that the horizon of the aviation sector in Nigeria is bright. He described the Aviation Hub in Uyo, as the “best kept secret” and “a hidden jewel” of the aviation sector in Nigeria.

Governor Umo Eno of Akwa Ibom State had visited President Bola Tinubu twice and Keyamo once to brief them on what Akwa Ibom has put in place in various sectors, including the aviation sector. At the directives of President Tinubu, the Minister, touched down in Uyo on Friday morning, January 16, 2024,  accompanied of Captain Chris Najomo, the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA and other top Aviation experts. For three hours Governor Eno conducted the Minister and his team around the Aviation Hub, conceived by former Governor Victor Attah and pursued relentlessly by every succeeding government in the State.

It was the immediate past governor, Udom Emmanuel, who took the Aviation hub to the zenith, initiating Ibom Air, building a
a world class Aircraft Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul, MRO, workshop,  a Smart International Airport Terminal, a 3.5 kilometre runway, two taxiways and a massive apron.

The first port of call for the Minister and his entourage was of course the Corporate Headquarters of Ibom Air, located within the sprawling parameters of the Victor Attah International Airport. It was wise to begin from the known to the unknown. Together with Governor Eno, they were briefed on the  well known strides and new frontiers of Ibom Air.

The first of the 10 brand new Airbus A220-300 Series that was recently acquired by Ibom Air was on ground. The Minister and his entourage,  guided by the Managing Director of Ibom Air, Captain Mfon Udom boarded and inspected the new aircraft, regarded as the most modern aircraft in the commercial airline industry worldwide. The governor watched from close quarters as Captain Udom in the company of George Uriesi, the Chief Operating Officer of the Ibom Air, proudly escorted the minister inside out the brand new aircraft. But that was not the clincher. The Minister had obviously seen and flown a brand new Airbus before.

The successes and impact of Ibom Air is an open secret. It has already made the airline a respected player in the Nigerian aviation industry. But unknown to many, even in the aviation sector, Ibom Air is just the face of the gigantic aviation hub, the first of its kind to emerge, not just in Nigeria but in West and Central Africa.

And when the Minister stepped into the MRO, it was a eureka for him. “This is an incredible facility we have here…What we have here is good for our dear country”, the Minister said.

Keyamo told journalists that one of the first things he identified when he came into office as Aviation Minister was the need for Nigeria to have a world class  Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO). “What I have seen here, meets that need. By the time it becomes fully operational, I am very certain it will capture the whole of the markets in West and Central Africa and even up to North Africa and that’s what we have been looking for…With this facility, we can conserve foreign… to meet other international obligations”.

With 230 airlines operating in Africa and only three MRO-owning  countries of Egypt,  Ethiopia and South Africa, the market size of MRO is estimated at USD 1.49 billion in 2024 alone. The continent is therefore yearning for more MROs. Nigeria, with 23 active domestic airlines and 358 aircrafts as at May 2023, spends millions of dollars and months on the queue of foreign MROs,  for basic  checks, accounting for flight delays, cancellations and airfare increases.

For these reasons, the minister said the facilities at Uyo is not just an Akwa Ibom property but Nigeria’s, pledging the federal government support to quickly complete outstanding works at the MRO and the international terminal. “I just want to thank God for the people of Akwa Ibom State, for blessing Nigeria with a facility such as this. By the time we do all our certifications, I am sure we will be ready for the world. This facility is not just for Akwa Ibom State alone, it is for Nigeria and Africa”, the Minister said.

According to the Minister, the absence of MRO in Nigeria is a major setback for the aviation industry in the country, accounting for the high mortality rate of Nigerian airlines. “One of the problems hampering the operation of the aviation sector in Nigeria has always been the lack of facilities such as this. Our aircrafts will go out of the country for maintenance and may be there for months. But with this facility, we can conserve foreign exchange to meet other international obligations…The potential of this place is huge. It’s about 90-95 percent complete and by the time it becomes fully operational, I am very certain it will capture the whole of the markets in West and Central Africa and even up to North Africa…”, he said.

The new MRO in Uyo can take, at a go, two Boeing 747 aircraft series, eight Airbus A-220 300 series and the five  CRJs now in the Ibom Air fleet. All the installations were near completion when the Minister visited the airport for inspection. Top aircraft maintenance companies in Europe and America are said to have already submitted offers to manage the MRO.

At the same time, Airbus experts from France were brought into Akwa Ibom to train 40 out of the first batch of 100 qualified youths in the first phase of Piloting and Aeronautical Engineering courses. The second and third phases of the training are scheduled to take place at the Airbus facility in France. Said then Governor Emmanuel in the twilight of his Administration, weeks before he handed over power to Governor Eno: “This is a total approach to aviation development…You can imagine the foreign exchange this airport will generate for Akwa Ibom State and Nigeria”.

At the smart International Terminal, Keyamo marvelled at the sophisticated equipment being installed as well as the architectural design of the terminal, noting that it is different from the usual design of terminals elsewhere in Nigeria. “This is so beautiful. I have never seen a subnational that is so dedicated, so committed to a project of this magnitude as much as Akwa Ibom State”,

Experts say the terminal wing of the hub is “the first smart international terminal in Nigeria”. It is equipped with the game-changing airport automation technology including facial recognition technology, automated vehicle counter that calculates the number of vehicles entering and leaving the airport, cameras that read the vehicle numbers and detect suspicious objects for analysis. The system also detects foot traffic and is equipped with a complete seeing observation system that makes the work of airport security easier. It is complete with two Taxiways, a new 3.5 kilometers runway and and new aprons for all categories of aircrafts.

Other features of the smart airport include the automated self check-in powered by roving robots, smart lighting control system for advanced occupancy and deeming functions, automated baggage screening and weighing units which complements the robot assisted self-check-in system, infrared toilet system, etc.

“It’s not just a terminal building, said the Minister. “What I am seeing here is a hub. It’s a proper hub where we can process international passengers and transfer them from one section to the other for them to catch their international flights. What we have here is a hidden jewel. My joy is that it is for the good of our dear nation”.

The Aviation hub in Uyo is a continuation of the vision and dream of successive Akwa Ibom leaders to position the State economy as a tourism driven economy, just like Dubai. The Aviation Minister himself was quick to identify and acknowledge the deep sense of continuity and unity of purpose of past and present Akwa Ibom governors. He told journalists that one of his first callers after he was sworn-in as the Aviation Minister was Obong Victor Attah, the former governor of the State who left office more than 16 years ago.

According to the Minister, what Obong Attah talked about in the phone call after congratulating him for his appointment was the need for the aviation ministry to throw its weight begin the airport in Akwa Ibom. To him, that showed how singlehanded and committed the leaders and people of Akwa Ibom State are about the development of the State. “God has blessed this State with successive governors who have put their minds to this, and Governor Eno is the finisher and perfecter of this race”.

To make the hub a dream cone true, the Minister pledged a full fledge support of his Ministry for the hub. “The dedication to this Aviation hub has been phenomenal.  I will mobilize all the agencies in my Ministry,  all the regulatory bodies to make sure they give 100 percent support to this project. The DG of NCAA is here and we stand ready to give you  maximum support”.

For Governor Eno:  “What we have here is already an aviation ecosystem  that Nigeria can work with and start completing with the rest of Africa and indeed the world. We therefore believe that whatever else remains to be done, the Honourable Minister will direct the appropriate agencies and departments under his Ministry to follow- through because with what we have here in Akwa Ibom, the future of Aviation industry in Nigeria is very bright…as we remain very dedicated to the success of President Tinubu’s Administration”.

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