NEWS COMMENTARY : PLANNED CONCESSION OF MAJOR AIRPORTS: MATTERS ARISING

Sen. Hadi Siriki- Minister of State, Aviation
Sen. Hadi Siriki- Minister of State, Aviation

It was the Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, who first mooted the idea that four of our viable airports in the country will be concessioned by the federal government. The airports include the Murtala Muhammed Airport in, Ikeja, Lagos, the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, the Malam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano and the Port-Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa in Rivers State. While making the disclosure at a meeting with the leadership of various unions in the sector, Sirika assured that there would be no job loss after the exercise. According to him government has resorted to this option because sources of government revenue are drying up, and the cost of running these airports is escalating. He made it clear that the proposed concession will be done transparently and that everybody will be carried along. Government is trudging the path of concession because managements of these airports have not performed to expectation. Justifying government’s action, the Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON), the umbrella organization for all indigenous airlines in the country, posits that if the airports are concessioned, apart from the fact that there will be more jobs and more money to maintain landing aids as well as to upgrade runways and navigational facilities, a development which will stimulate growth that can attract more non aeronautical businesses and increase productivity.

On the other hand, however, airport professional groups advised those who want the airports concessioned to build their own ultra modern terminal buildings side by side with those under the management of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and let them compete, saying that ”coming to dispossess FAAN of its new terminal buildings is like reaping where they have not sown and this is pure stealing. ”

The National Union of Pensioners, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria’s chapter picked holes in the government’s indictment of managers of the airports. According to it,”the minister mentioned lack of management performance. If he feels the present management is not competent he should bring good hands to manage the airports. If he lacks the clue to appoint the competent hands we can help him select them. We want to posit that, these four viable airports have been under Nigerian managers, not foreigners, over the years and they have been graded category A.”

What is happening at the international wing of the Lagos Airport has given vociferous voice to those who want the airports concessioned. Power supply to the airport, for instance, has been disrupted several times. There were instances when airline officials have to use torchlight, handsets and lanterns to guide passengers to board their flights and also to provide illumination to   arriving passengers to disembark. The frequency with which power failure occurs in the place encourages the call for concession. The image of the nation is always at stake each time we have this type of situation on our hands. The embarrassment to the nation can better be imagined. Oftentimes when there are no blackouts bottlenecks are deliberately created at the entrance to the departure lounge for reasons best known to the officials manning these points.

Without making a case for the chief executives of the parastatal that manages the airports, constant changing of them has never helped matters. Some of them have good intentions but they are never allowed to stay long enough to implement their plans. The ideas some of them had planted in the past were never allowed to grow before they were sent packing. Under such conditions it is difficult, if not impossible, to make any meaningful impact in the area of development. Constant interference from other sources especially the government slows down progress of the agencies. This is evident in the fact that administrators keep changing with each government at the centre, a development which does not give room for continuity.

Industry watchers who spoke to Aviationline, are of the view that airport concessioning in itself is not evil after all; the evil in it is the agreement signed with concessionaires by corrupt public officials who put government at disadvantage. Private sector driven management is the vogue in advanced economies because of its profile of high profitability. The immediate past administration invested in facilities to upgrade these airports being considered for concessioning now with a view to shore up revenue accruing from them to make them more responsive to the national economy.  Prior to the intervention, aviation contributed a meager 0.24% to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with a projection that after the transformation exercise the industry would be capable of jerking up its contribution to as much as 30%.

“In modern airports across the globe under private sector management the profitability index is on the high side and Nigeria should join the league but for dubious government officials who would work to line their pockets by signing bogus agreements with concessionaires such that the flavour of concessioning would be lost,” they said.

According to them it is under this modern management initiative that the benefits of aviation can be exploited to rescue the ailing national economy from going comatose. The evidence that the industry has not grown appreciably in the recent past is the inability of the stakeholders, over the years, to take advantage of Nigeria’s position as the centre of Africa to make it an aviation hub in the continent. They pointed to the slipshod handling of frequencies of foreign airlines and the signing of Bilateral Air Services Agreements (BASA) with other nations by government officials which is threatening our indigenous airlines with extinction.

We share the view that if the four revenue yielding airports must be concessioned, the concessionaire must take the non viable ones as part of the package.