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‘For better service, reputable technocrats should run airport’

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Bernard

Bankole Bernard is the Group Managing Director of Finchglow Group and Chairman of Airline and Passenger Joint Committee (APJC) – a body under the International Air Transport Association (IATA). In this interview with WOLE OYEBADE, Bernard assessed the Federal Government’s plan to concession the airports amid contending interests within the industry. He said move was overdue in the interest of economic growth.

Over the years, Nigerians complained about decayed airport infrastructure with the position that concession should be the way out. What is your view on this alternative?
The truth is that aviation industry is a very sensitive one and everywhere globally has seen aviation taking some countries to their economic haven. Aviation has helped countries build a better economy and for a country like Nigeria, we cannot be left out. Based on this, the minister of aviation has injected some fresh measures into the aviation industry that have changed the industry positively. One of these is the idea of concessioning, which is fantastic.

But it has turned out to be contentious as well.
People do not understand what concession is all about. Concessioning does not mean transfer of ownership. The ownership of our airports still remains in the coffers of the government. The only thing that is being transferred is the responsibility of managing those airports. So, let us conveniently separate it. Ownership remains with the government, but the responsibility of the management is now in the hands of reputable technocrats that understand the industry very well. When the concessioning is given to reputable hands, then they will deliver better service to the travellers, better service in the industry, and better service even to the regulators.

For instance, the airport terminal is what most travellers or users get to see; they do not get to see how the runway works. They do not get to see the management of the navigation aids. Those are sensitive facilities that should be in the hands of the regulator because that is backend of the entire airport. So, concessioning needs to be properly explained to the common man for him to appreciate what it is. It means that it becomes more profitable and more user friendly to everyone.

Are you not surprised that even the aviation workers and their various unions are against concession? It is that they do not under this logic of concession?
Now, let me come from the perspective of the unions, who are also stakeholders in the industry. I will liken the union to a child. When you tell a child to stop playing rough or not to play with certain gadgets because it might be harmful, the child may not understand. So, more often than not, the unions are not well-informed on the position. All they are seeing is that there is going to be layoff of workers, but not the benefits that will come to all.

Tell me, the Murtala Muhammed Airport terminal II (MMA2) was concessioned, are there no workers there today? Are they not getting there entitlement? Are they not better paid? Concessioning will guaranty win-win for everybody, including the investors that have dropped the money. Now, that governments’ money can be used for less viable airports nationwide. So, our viable airports should be given to the technocrats that can manage it better and make it more profitable. And the government stands to benefit at the end of the day.

Do you see selfish interest in the unions’ resistance?
Definitely, and there is no doubt about it. We must understand that when you have done your tenure, let other people come in. But, they (the workers) continue to rotate older hands in that circle and you see that the system is just about them alone. They need to allow younger people to come into the industry. Just the way I took over the leadership position of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA) and brought a lot of vitality into it with fresh energy and ideas for things to change and everybody got to know its value and the worth, so the unions too need to take that same step for things to get much better in the industry.
Looking at the concession and the entire roadmap that the minister initiated in 2016, it has almost taken forever for any one of it to be actualised.

We must understand that when the minister came up with the roadmap, the minister too would have to go through the Federal Executive Council to be able to put it across to the President as well as the council members to buy into that idea. So, if he is not getting the relevant support from the industry, do you think it is going be an easy sell at the council? We in the aviation industry need to rally round the minister, give him the relevant support. The council members will just give it a nod without further delay. But when we have selfish people within the system that pollute the minds of some of the members of FEC, it will be a difficult sell.

I have heard a lot of criticisms about the concessioning of MMA2. But guess what, even at that nobody doubts the benefits and the good management of that particular facility. I said it is still far better than most of our airports that are managed by government. Why? Because it has been given to a technocrat to manage; someone that understands what airport management is all about.

Some of the items on the aviation roadmap were Buhari’s electioneering campaign in 2015. How can we marry this with the difficulty in getting FEC to support the projects?
Remember that the Aviation Minister is not the only one seeking the attention of the president. More so, there are other projects in the health industry, manufacturing, economy and other sectors being represented. So, we have limited resources with bogus projects that we want to do. It is going to be a big contest to get approvals. So, for the minister to actually achieve so much with his task without him being seen as being favoured, he has to now pick on what is most important before he moves to the next one.

To re-assure potential investors that Nigerian government has credibility and honours agreements; don’t you think it is better to have started with resolving the faceoff between Bi-Courtney and FAAN over MMA2 concession?
Those technicalities will definitely be addressed. The minister is enlightened, exposed and he is a respecter of law as well. He will not violate all those agreements. He will ensure that those agreements are well natured and respected. I will give you an instance, when the idea of a national carrier was pushed forward, were the ex-staff of Nigerian Airways not settled? The national carrier is the pride of the nation. I am very sure that the minister and his team are aware of it and it is being addressed.

But you see, we have the tendency of paying attention to the negative things that will not make things happen. When we start to say this is the reason for this and that, it denies us of the real result that we want to achieve. Because this is concessioning that we have identified and the concessioning given to Bi-Courtney is still ongoing. So, they have not cancelled it. But there is negative report that is being violated. They are all sensational news just to distract the real project that is at hand. It all about trying to divert the views of the people into something else other than the main project that is important. That will be of benefit to you and me and the nation at large.

How are you sure that investors are still interested, because the money is not there right now and we are entering a COVID-19 recovery stage, which is going to be long and difficult? How are you sure that we will be able to even attract both foreign or local investors?
I will say something to you, Nigeria is a beautiful bride and that is one of the things that we all have to agree with. So, when somebody is beautiful, she is beautiful there is nothing you can do about it. We are a special breed loved by God and that is why we have refused to see the potential in us because there are a lot of potential in us as Nigerians. So, the international community is very interested in this country more than we, because we can’t see the potential in ourselves.

The moment we start to see the potential in us, you will see a whole lot of difference. Go to Ghana today, they have a beautiful terminal as it were, but even as beautiful as that terminal is, have you seen the passenger traffic like that of Nigeria? Couldn’t they import people? They can’t because they have not being gifted with that beauty that I am talking about. So that is what gets a people like us going. Nigeria is a sleeping giant, the moment its wakes up, even if it wakes up late, it will still take its place. That is the problem with when you are beautiful, you are naturally made, it is not you that made yourself.

So you can imagine the moment we concession our airports and it starts to run better than what it is now. Automatically, we become the hub of the West Coast. Ghana might be forced to say they want to make their airport and extension of Nigeria, because that is the truth. We have the crowd and that you cannot take away from us. Look at the whole of West coast, it is whatever direction that Nigeria goes to that leads. We are the giant that everybody is looking up to that has not lived up to it. The moment we do the concessioning and we will now use the concessioning to link the terminals together, automatically that means there is connectivity to all the local airports. That is the beauty of what we will achieve by the time we do the concessioning.


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