Twist in regional competition as new airport opens in Anambra
Anambra State has set a national record in on-time delivery and sole funding of an International Cargo Airport. Now at stake is its ambitious plan to be the hub for regional air cargo, in rivalry with the likes of Asaba, Enugu and Owerri airports. Stakeholders said the new entrant should be taken seriously. WOLE OYEBADE reports.
Anambra International Cargo Airport (AICA) has been a long arduous journey of over two decades. And when last Friday came, sightseeing residents had less difficulty coping with the deplorable Federal highway from Awka to Awkuzu, inwards Umueri where the airport finally sits.
Thorough profiling at entry gates by men of the Nigerian Army did little to deter the large turnout. They kept coming in droves. And when the sprawling infrastructure came into full glare, many forgot the long wait and hours in the scorching sun.
At 2:45 p.m., an Air Peace Boeing737 aircraft touched down the centre line of the sprawling runway. The large audience at the foot of the apron erupted in awe and wild jubilation. And when the aircraft came to a halt, hundreds of jubilant audience breeched through security barriers, raced down the landing wheels to have a memorable feel of the airplane – the first to land in Anambra. They have been waiting for 30 years!
“This is a great day for the entire Ndi Anambra,” an excited High Chief said. “We have been waiting for so long. When Obiano said it, we didn’t believe him because other governors before him said the same thing. Last month, they told us the airport was ready. I said how can that be? Just like that? I thought it was a lie. Today, it is true.”
The airport was indeed a well-kept secret by the Anambra State government. Though compensation was earlier paid to villages and families affected by the land acquisition about seven years ago, unknown to many was the beginning of construction in January 2020. About 15 months later, the project was near delivery.
Aviation stakeholders have always been skeptical of State government-built airports that often turn out to be white elephants. But they reckoned that the Anambra airport has proven skeptics wrong given its quick delivery. They also warmed up to its viability through its strategic location for regional competition, its primacy on freights, and an international gateway for multiple Anambra billionaire businessmen.
Arrived in record time
For the political class, there is a pride that accompanies siting an airport within a State. Though there are a total of 26 airports nationwide, States are still angling to set up the critical facility without a clear-cut idea of its purpose. Between 2011 to date, no fewer than 14 States had committed a total of N250 billion to airport projects – most of which did not come upstream.
Anambra turns out to be different and might have launched an inroad into the South Eastern aviation competition. Quite proud of the legacy project, Governor of the State, Willie Obiano, at the flight test-run of the facility, said the multi-billion naira project was strategic for the economy of Anambra, the region, and of Nigeria at large.
“Seven years ago, we announced that our vision was to make Anambra State the first choice in investment destination, the hub of industrialisation and commercial activities. This airport is a fulfillment of our vision and mission statements. It is difficult to create a new economic corridor without a functional international airport that will serve as a direct bridge between us and the world,” Obiano said.
The facility meant much more to the governor. He described it as the most audacious, if not the most “revolutionary” legacy of his administration.
“Experts told me that our airport has set a record in the aviation industry as the fastest and most modern airport to be built in recent times. It took only one year and three months of determination, perseverance and courage in the face of danger, to build this. We rose above the gloom and doom of global lockdowns and phobia over COVID-19 to bring this dream to reality.
“This airport is proof that no army, no matter how fortified, can stand the force of an idea! A great idea may rest for a while, but it will come to reality when its time is due! The most interesting thing about this airport, for me, is that the Anambra State Government did not borrow a kobo to build it. Not a single kobo! This in itself is a record in leadership vision and execution in Nigeria with our current realities.”
Strategic inroad into regional competition
Competition in air cargo and passenger traffic is already stiff in the east and adjourning the southern states. For cargo traffic, the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport (SMICA) in Owerri, Imo State, and Enugu International airport, Enugu, favourably compete. The recently concessioned Asaba International Airport, in Asaba, does more passenger traffic. In-between them comes AICA. Leading travel and tourism consultant, Ikechi Uko, reckons that Anambra has made the right inroad both for trade and the “billionaire businessmen cluster” in the State.
Ikechi observed that Anambra State was reputed to have the highest number of billionaires in Africa, and also has one of the largest markets in West Africa, in Onitsha main market – both of which will work to the advantage of its aviation venture.
“I have always believed that a 3km tarmac can transform any city. With the economic capacity of Anambra State the airport will be a game-changer. The businessmen and the viability are there. It is one of the few states that depends on its Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) for growth. So, there is no doubt that the State has sufficient business and capacity for trade.
“The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) said close to a thousand containers leave Lagos for Anambra weekly. That is a lot. That is an A-cargo opportunity for any airline. The business opportunity and entrepreneur prowess are not in doubt. The airport will be viable,” Ikechi said.
Apparently, in agreement with Ikechi, Aviation Consultant, Chris Aligbe, urged Anambra to focus on international cargo operations and efficient domestic passenger operations.
“Anambra must brace up for stiff competition from concessioned Asaba Airport, which is sitting on the same air passenger traffic emporium, even with a more extended market that stretches to Uromi, Abudu in Edo State.
“Onitsha, Nnewi, up to Okija axis and even Abagana are closer to Asaba than Awka. Again Enugu Airport controls the air traffic market stretching up to Udi, which is closer to Enugu than Awka. So, cargo will be the strength of the Anambra Airport, all things, including efficient management, being equal. In the final analysis, management will be very critical to success,” Aligbe said.
Built to last
Air Peace airline has the largest commercial fleet in the country. Shortly after the touchdown in Anambra, its chairman, Allen Onyema, said the landmark facility was significant for its longest runway in the country, with the capacity to receive the biggest airplanes in the world.
Onyema said: “What we have here is the longest and widest runway that can land a Boeing 777 and an Airbus 380. This is the first time an airport (in Nigeria) would be doing a test-run with a Boeing 737. It used to be very small planes before. I decided to bring in two planes to show the quality of the airport here. I can tell you that it is a game-changer,” Onyema said.
Commissioner for Works and Head of the project delivery team, Marcel Ifejiofor, said the level of work done in the airport was 90 per cent, and due to be fully completed before August.
Ifejiofor noted that except for the terminal and access roads that were near completion, all other components were 100 per cent ready.
“The good thing about what we are doing here is that the equipment have been paid for. The lights, the aerobridges, the security, the Instrument Landing Systems and the VOR have all been paid for. In the next two months, everything should have been completed and we would commission the airport,” Ifejiofor said.
When in operations, the terminal is expected to employ about 1000 direct and indirect workers. Its runway of 3.7km, with the apron of 300 by 200 metres has the capacity for eight Boeing 727 aircraft at a go.
“We have three access roads to this airport. We have one that is under contract and is being worked on, another one comes from Onitsha road but we have the major entrance of 5.7km that leads to the expressway. That road is 85 per cent completed. Our projected passenger traffic is 1,200 daily passengers because the terminal is designed for 400 passengers at a time.
“Airlines and other service providers are showing interest in this airport. Air Peace has indicated interest to set up a Maintenance Repair Overhaul (MRO) for aircraft. Aviation school is coming here to set up a training school. Before December 2021, commercial schedule operations would have commenced at this airport,” the commissioner said.
The demonstration and maiden flight event was quite symbolic. After the Boeing737 came another aircraft, Embraer 145 jet, also flown by Air Peace. Just as the event was rounding off, a private jet owned by an Anambra billionaire also flew in. For many residents and aviators, days ahead should be the most interesting.
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