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Making airports viable


AirportsTHE subsisting directive by the government to the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to make all airports in the country viable would seem on its surface a logical call given the present economic crisis in the country, necessitating government’s quest for better revenue generation and avoidance of waste of any kind. It is, however, not clear how FAAN would make airports viable in a depressed economy with little or no production and low passenger traffic. Of course, there has to be a systematic process over a given time to revive the economy, boost production and services which would in turn lead to better business in the entire transportation sector, not only aviation. Since FAAN’s involvement is largely limited to provision of aviation infrastructure, airports’ viability would depend on their location or congruity to areas of robust economic activities.

The Federal Government, it has been reported, expects the airports to at least. Indeed, meet their running costs. Government, at the moment, meets much of those costs, which it said it would henceforth, no longer bear. Indeed, government now expects FAAN to contribute 25 per cent of its earnings to the coffers.

Consequently, FAAN has reportedly set up a committee to visit the airports and assess their viability, especially in terms of developing non-aeronautical revenue sources that would attract people to the airports. It needs to be emphasized that passenger traffic and revenue generation at airports complement each other. FAAN should therefore evaluate its options critically before embarking on non-aeronautical services at non-functional airports. At the moment, airports are not the most pressing need of Nigerians. Nigerians need first class good roads and a functional railway system to support production and even national integration.

Generally, the aviation sector in Nigeria is faced with many challenges. The airports are not well-maintained and that Nigeria’s four international airports are ranked among the worst in Africa is indicative of not only bad management but also poor political leadership. The airports, Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos; Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja; Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano and Port Harcourt International Airport, are also evident to Nigerians as monuments to shame for a country of Nigeria’s size and economy. Poor in design and horrible in maintenance and service delivery, these airports are a great disincentive to travelling and tourism as an economic tool for Nigeria’s development. The Akanu Ibiam International Airport in Enugu is operating far below half capacity with only one international airline flying there. Similarly, the Sam Mbakwe Cargo Airport, Owerri, is hardly measuring up. The remaining 16 airports are virtually dormant and at the same time weighed down by a heavy financial burden. Most of the infrastructure at the airports are rotting away.

Yet, while the existing airports are lying dormant, some state governments have been in a mad rush to build new ones, which amounts to waste of scarce resources and also compounds the problem. Substandard infrastructure is the signature of Nigeria’s airports. Some have no landing facilities, especially, for night operations or for bad weather.

Yet, there are examples from which Nigeria can learn. For instance, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) considers developing integrated facilities at its airports chain as necessity. Consequently, Indian airports have developed infrastructure designed to boost commercial activity. AAI enhances its marketing strategy to make its airports operationally and commercially viable and also focuses on the cargo segment to boost its revenues. The San Francisco airport reportedly generates significant economic benefits for the entire Bay Area through direct employment, induced employment, and business revenues.  The airport makes for convenient and affordable business travel across the United States and around the world for big companies located in the Bay Area. That way, the airport is financially secure for long term viability even as it continues to make facility improvements for now and the future.

For the Nigerian authorities’ information, it is not compulsory that an airport, once built, must remain operational if it is not viable. It is a business venture and circumstances may change to make an airport adjust to realities.  The Plymouth City Airport, opened in 1925, was closed in 2011, after the city council that owned it sought a new operator but none came forth. The airport closed despite being one of the few U.K. airports that experienced significant growth in 2009. Aviation business is capital-intensive and is covered by international rules and regulations that must be adhered to. The Nigerian authorities should not only ensure compliance with the regulations for a safe aviation industry, they must do so within the context of profitability and best business practices.

Any state government that builds an airport should seek to operate it profitably or find an operator. Otherwise, that government should be held to account by the people for embarking on such an irresponsible flight of fancy.

FAAN should then do an audit of all the airports and close those adjudged to be unviable to prevent further waste.

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