Nigeria: With Huge Travel Market, Nigeria Needs Strong Airlines - Minister

Photo: This Day
24 May 2019
interview

The Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, who spoke at the sixth stakeholders meeting in Lagos recently, said the only way Nigeria can benefit from its huge air transport market is to grow very strong airlines with capacity that will enable them compete with other international carriers. Chinedu Eze who was there and brings the excerpts:

National Carrier

The centrality of Nigeria in the geography of Africa being equal distance from all locations within Africa is also a good candidate for a very robust carrier. And whether there is a reason or need for government to support the establishment of the carrier, yes there is. You all agree with me that we are yet to have an airline that is truly an airline that is answering the quest and the yearnings of travellers in Nigeria. So we must support every entrepreneur willing to establish an airline or who already has an airline existing. We must support because that is the purpose of government being there.

We must also support people who will build capacity to be able to equate or to be able to surpass where other airlines are now. Say, for example, Ethiopia, when Nigerian Airway was flying all over the place Ethiopia Airlines was just nowhere. They must have started before us but they weren't anywhere. But because of that vacuum then you will go to people like Ethiopia, recently you have Rwanda, Namibia coming, everybody. But believe me this is where the market is. And at a time when we did the numbers we found out that most of this business is centred around this country, Nigeria. Because this is where the market is. I have done some speaking somewhere in England last week and we analysed all of this movement in the globe and we found out that, if you look at centre of Americas to centre of Europe to mid-East and to Southern Asia, that is where the activity of aviation is happening.

But most of it is due to three fundamental things that I found out. One is the geography; we are blessed or God given. I used to say that the map of Africa, if you turn it, it looks like a gun and the trigger, they said is where Nigeria is. If you consider this belt where we are operating, the west and central Africa, if that is the best belt for Africa, economically, politically and socially then Nigeria must be the bulk of the belt for Africa.

Another thing is that we don't have a very active, vibrant airline industry. We all know the story of Dubai; it is just their airport and their airline simple. We also see Singapore, the thing that development their commerce and their train and their finance, and their GDP, believe it or not, it is the aviation. I stand to be corrected on Dubai and on Singapore, and now recently we are seeing Mauritius trying to come up and currently the case study now is Istanbul in Turkey. Now they are building the biggest airport on earth to handle150million people or more. And their airline has grown in leaps and bounds. Because these countries have the airline and because they are building capacity for the airport, that is why they are drawing people in and their people are going out. So it is not magic, once you are able to have the vehicle that will bring into where you are and they go out, and you create a hub around you. Even there is an argument now has to how, with the development of bigger, more capacity airliners, as in aircraft that will fly non-stop anywhere in the world, that maybe the days of hubs are phasing out. It is incorrect because people will get tired of flying 24 hours in that plane.

Passenger Traffic

I just read statistics from my office that we have moved over 18 million passengers within the last year under review. We used to be at 15 million but surprisingly the numbers have gone onto 18 plus and almost 19 million passengers. And this is a huge development in our sector and this is also a sign that we are going in the right direction. So there are more people flying now and propensity to fly is increasing in this sub sector. Of course you have heard that we certified the Lagos and Abuja airports, we are yet to do Port Harcourt and Kano. We soon will do that and we may possibly, pending when we finish Enugu, we may degrade it, in terms of the international status because the runway condition in Enugu is terrible. And we have issues there; I have been there three times. I discussed with the governor and told him things to do, so that we can rehabilitate the airport.

Enugu Airport

I read some in London two, three day ago that Air Peace suffered bird strike, they had to make an air return. Because as you approach Enugu, there is a market there and the market is an abattoir, and that attracts birds. We sympathise with them on the bird strike and luckily they made air return and there were no issues. But this is part of the problem, as you approach, you have that market and at the end of the runway also you have this free trade zone. The government is trying to establish free trade zone and the extended centreline of the runway. And we all know that Enugu is the Kaduna of the east, it is the headquarters of the east and the travelling passengers are always there and we really have international flights going in there. True to Nigerians attitude once they heard that they would be paid some compensation in Enugu, many people came and built houses but initially only about two or three houses were there. When the governor wanted to compensate the host community so that we can expand the runway to make it 60 meters wide and 7.5 shoulders and to extend the length, they just started springing up buildings there. Before you know it within nine months there have been too many houses in that place. And the government keeps promising them that he will demolish the houses for us to continue. So, we can't continue and I am afraid, just like you received the news when I said I will close down Abuja, I am afraid that Enugu will have to be closed down because honestly I can't take the risk. And I have said to the governor, I went there three times and it was on the news. Please, please let us get into Enugu once and for all; fix the runways, it is very important. Extend it, expand it and put all of the landing aids and so on, and that market must move. When I was a kid we used to go to a market that was 16 kilometres away and we trekked. So pushing it maybe two, three kilometres away will not harm to save lives. And to improve on the operations of Enugu airport, we have just spent several hundreds of dollars to do the new Enugu terminal. Who is going to go in there? No one. Ethiopian airlines going there will stop going and in fact even if they don't stop going we will stop them going there. So think the earlier the governor does his beat, to one, remove that free zone, two, remove the market, remove the state radio mast because it is directly on approach. Now, what we are doing on the runway is the cut and paste of patchy, patchy work in Nigerian language, to ensure that it is safe for operations. So daily our men are there, fixing the runway, once you fix one section it fails the next week. Similar to what Abuja was doing before we close it down.

Projects

From 2015 till now we have about 157 projects for the sector, and we have completed 130, and they are 100 per cent completed. 13 of them are above 50 per cent and 13 of them are below 50 per cent. And we have done about 14 policies. This is just a summary of what we have done, this include all the Abuja ILSs (Instrument Landing System) and everything that we have done. It was so difficult to achieve all of these because we went through a lot of challenging times. You know the income of government has lessened, that is why sometimes you see aviation having 11 per cent of this on the budget. When you budget for, let's say N10 billion and it has been reduced through some process to N6 billion and out of that you get release of 11 per cent; it is only magic that can let you do some of these things. But luckily we went through all of these and we are to announce that we have done 130 out of 157 projects.

Rebuilding of MMIA Terminal

We are going to rebuild the Murtala Muhammed Airport international terminal. We met with Julius Berger and they gave us a bill. Mr President was willing to source the money and do it. So, the total projected cost is about N14 billion or thereabout to be spent as palliatives. Looking at the airport from outside, you will think everything is okay but believe me what is behind it, I was scared when I saw it. This is because they carried out comprehensive investigation. First the integrity of the structure and all of the services there, some of the cabling has melted together. So, we have to invest that N14 billion into it and then later we try to do it again and make it multi-level, maybe two levels. And you know that we don't receive any federal government subvention in terms of VAT, we try to improve our incomes and block all those drainages and see how we can maximise the amount of money and fix this airport especially Lagos.

I explained in the stakeholder meeting some time ago that, imagine yourself like where I come from where their multiple wives, like four but imagine yourself with one wife and one son and you are in a flat of two bedrooms, with one toilet, plus you and then aunties, if it is Lagos and Abuja, that is exactly the story of Lagos airport. Built and intended for 200, 000 people and now is doing eight million. The same structure is still in place, so it must collapse. People talked to me about the toilet, you see it is that same toilet; the rate of the use of the toilets will literally make you keep the plumber there. It has been my headache for the last three years since I became Minister, but luckily we have found a solution now.

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