There is a popular saying thus: money answereth all things. This means that when there is paucity of money, one can be limited in development. This is the stand of the present administration regarding the management of airports. According to the Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, due to the present economic crunch, whereby resources accruing to government coffers since the global economic recession, especially from the petroleum sector, it can no longer meet its obligations regarding running the 22 airports across the country. Instead of committing scarce resources in running them, the government is considering deriving resources from them in its bid to increase profitability.

Most of the airports in the country today were built with petro-dollars during the oil boom days of the 1970s. At that time consideration for building airport in any part of the country was more of political rather than economic reasons. No wonder, no sooner these airports came to be than they were abandoned. Since they don’t experience regular operations, they could not generate sufficient funds to sustain them. These idle airports therefore depend on others especially the international airports in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port-Harcourt for their sustenance. Coincidentally, these ‘cash cow’ airports are the same ones the federal government plans to concession to private entrepreneurs for profitability.

“Paucity of funds won’t allow government to continue to manage 22 airports in the country; rather we will partner with the private sector to run airports in the country.  Because money is not there, government is compelled under the circumstance, to invite private sector to partner with it to run airports profitably,” the Minister told journalists in Abuja while explaining government’s position on the concession of airports in the country, which airport workers have challenged and have vowed to frustrate with all the power in their arsenal for fear of losing their jobs.

The workers were quick in referring to the liquidation of the defunct national carrier, the Nigeria Airways, whose staff were yet to be paid their severance pay, many of whom are now old and had died as a result of the poverty flaunted on them by sudden job loss.

Under the aegis of three unions, the National Union of Pensioners (NUP), the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) Chapter, the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN), the workers argued that the N45 billion recently released by the federal government to pay off the ex-staff of Nigeria Airways was a far cry from the N75 billion owed them and it is coming after many of them had grown old either to do anything useful again or had died. In addition, the workers had pointed out that they were not consulted by the government before taking the decision to concession the airports, a development which they said was suspect that the whole deal is shrouded in secrecy and as such prone to manipulations by unscrupulous public officers as it is now happening in concession deals government had entered into with some private sector operators of certain facilities at the airport.

“Rushing into concessioning of the airports the manner the federal government is handling it now may result in bungling the plan so that it will not result in litigations as it has done in certain concession agreements entered into by the Federal Airports authority of Nigeria (FAAN) which have resulted in no fewer than 64 unresolved litigations. These contentious issues could have informed the federal government to put its concession plan on hold and exploit consultations in its stead,” the unions argued while staging a joint demonstration in Lagos recently.

Another standpoint of the workers is that contrary to claims that FAAN is not being profitably run, they argued that it is a ploy by mischief makers to give a dog a bad name in order to hang it. For instance, in addition to being able to pay salaries and pensions of its workers regularly the syndicated Chinese $500million loan by the federal government while building new terminals at the Lagos, Abuja, Port-Harcourt, Kano and Enugu airports, amounting to millions of dollars, during the tenure of Princess Stella Oduah (now Senator) as Aviation Minister, is now being paid by FAAN from internally generated revenue from its facilities. This is besides having enough to execute vital projects at the airports across the country.

Adding their voice to the debate, some aviation experts who spoke to Aviationline say that the hiccups being experienced in the running of airports emanate essentially from government lopsided policies, which are usually at variance with commercialisation. The protesting workers blamed inefficiencies in the system to interference in the aviation agencies by ministry officials, a situation which places airport workers under government bureaucracy.

“Under such a situation, profitability is hamstrung,” the workers posited.

“After all, MMA built to handle 200,000 passengers annually but today handles 8 million, a development that shows that the workers had invested heir ingenuity to maintain the highest standards to run decaying and dilapidated facilities to maximise profitability,” the experts pointed out.

The workers also pointed out the it is unwise for government to invest billions of Naira in paying off workers their benefits following the concession of the airports. That money, they said, should have otherwise being channeled into provision of infrastructure that will not only improve profitability but will ensure efficient systems at both international and local airports run by FAAN.

By concessioning the four international airports in the country amounts to selling off the cash cows of the aviation industry as these are the only viable airports that generate funds for running the other ones across the country. Once they pass into private hands there will be little or no funds to run other airports.

The Minister however, allayed the fears of workers regarding job loss as government is ready to pay severance package should there be any job loss as a result of the exercise. He assured that the concession would be designed such that there will be no job loss. According to him, here is no going back on the issue as approval had been given since 2015 by government to go ahead with concessioning and that government has, since then, been fine-tuning the process to avoid pitfalls of the past.

He blamed the problems arising from previous concession arrangement due to ignorance, pointing out that today we’re wiser.

The Minister added that the concession being conceptualized by the present administration will be transparently done with active participation of workers in both the delivery and steering committees set up to drive the process. He revealed that an Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) would be set up with a portal where stakeholders will have opportunity to make suggestions on how to drive the process not only to ensure transparency but also to avoid the pitfalls of the past.

When fully operational, the concession will operate on the process whereby any concessionaire will Build-Operate-Sustain (investor makes its money, government makes money as well in the process)- Return facility to government after a duration of 20 to 25 years.