• Wednesday, December 06, 2023
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What would it take Nigeria to build a world-class international airport?


Wole Shadare reporting in the Nigeria Guardian News online did highlight that airports development is one of the keys to economic development. Citing Dubai’s international airport, the thrust of his report is that as business markets become national and international in scale, airports are increasingly being seen as catalysts for local economic development. But, this is simply stating the obvious.

Airports are not just engines of economic growth; they are also the image of the communities they represent. We cannot agree more with this report that, “While passenger traffic reflects the level of economic development, demographics, business activity and tourism, cargo volumes are indicative of the strength of the economy just as land development on or near airport sites, mainly for industrial uses but also for tourism and creation, generates additional economic activity.”

It goes without saying, therefore, that if airport quality including capacity is severely constrained, passengers could become easily frustrated and avoid that airport, if they can. Those who cannot may be compelled to use it, but go with a very negative impression of not just the airport, but the country it represents. Any regular user of Nigeria’s international airport at Lagos can easily attests to this fact. The long-term cumulative effect of this is to stifle economic growth, however imperceptibly.

Another report by Ben Ezeamalu titled, “Africa: No Nigerian Airport Among Africa’s Best 10,” published in Premium Times and reproduced on allafrica.com was what it took to prod me from my inconvenient silent stupor over the absence of a world-class international airport in Nigeria.

In fairness, the current administration under President Goodluck Jonathan is trying to reverse decades of abject neglect that have come to characterise Nigeria’s airports, until in very recent time. Ongoing remodelling at both local and international airports across Nigeria are testaments of the efforts of present government to breath new life to the ailing infrastructure at the airports in Nigeria.

Even at that, it should come as no surprise that, no Nigerian airport was listed among the best in Africa in the 2013 Skytrax World Best Airport Awards held at Passenger Terminal EXPO, Geneva, Switzerland. Any regular international air traveller would easily admit that our best is simply not good enough!

As one of Africa’s fastest growing economies estimated to overtake South Africa’s by 2030, that our best airport is simply not good enough in the comity of nations in Africa (not the world) should disconcert the patriotic sensibility of any right-thinking Nigerian.

That South Africa’s airports dominated the top 10 ranking in Africa, with Cape Town International Airport emerging the Best Airport in Africa, followed by Durban King Shaka International Airport and Johannesburg (Tambo) International Airport in second and third places, respectively, should come as no surprise. Before we dismiss well-meant and constructive criticism as “unpatriotic” at best, or “misguided” at worst, it should be borne in mind that this year’s awards, voted by airport customers from around the world, garnered 12.1 million responses. While 12.1 million respondents is only an insignificant fraction of the world’s population, it does represent a significant percentage that travels by air or passes through Africa.

We are told that, Egypt’s Cairo International Airport was ranked fourth while the fifth position went to Mauritius International Airport. In sixth position is East London Airport, South Africa, while Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia came seventh, and Port Elizabeth Airport, South Africa in eighth position Morocco’s Marrakech Menara International Airport and Seychelles International Airport ranked ninth and tenth, respectively.

You would be forgiven for thinking that if Nigeria lost out in the infrastructure, serenity and cleanliness categories, it should not, at least, in the Best Airport Staff category. Alas, it did. South Africa also made a clean sweep of the Best Airport Staff category with Cape Town International Airport, Durban King Shaka International Airport, Johannesburg International Airport, East London Airport, and Port Elizabeth Airport occupying all the five positions. Three South African airports – the only ones from Africa – were also listed among the world’s top 100 airports, ranked 22nd, 26th, and 28th, respectively.

On the world stage, Simon Rogers of the UK Guardian Newspaper once posted a data blog about the world’s top 100 airports from the Airports Council International. We are told that, about 3.2 billion passengers went through the world’s top 100 airports in 2011, 998 million of them in Europe and another 989 million in North America. The world’s biggest airports have seen big increases in passengers: Heathrow was up 5.1 percent, Atlanta (the world’s biggest) was up 3.3 percent and Beijing was up 4.5 percent.

The biggest increases came in the new global powerhouses: New Delhi in India (up 17.8% to 34.7m passengers), Rio (up 17%) up Xiamen in China (up 15.9%). You can be forgiven for expecting that in Africa, considering Nigeria’s rivalry with South Africa for the top economy by 2030, at least one of Nigeria’s airports would appear in the ranking and mapping. Alas, none did!

If Nigeria is going to build a world-class international airport, it would be in either Lagos, its commercial ‘capital’ or Abuja, its administrative capital. As it stands, given that Lagos international airport has much higher passenger traffic, estimated at slightly over 6 million in 2012, it has to be the main contender. The international terminal was constructed during the Murtala Muhammed military regime and modelled after Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and officially opening March 15 1979. At the time, it was envisaged that over time, additional wings would be constructed to expand its capacity. The Federal Government has just given approval to expand the departure and arrival halls of the airport to accommodate the ever increasing traffic. It is a shame that it has taken Nigeria well over three decades, specifically 34 years, to begin remodelling and expansion of the international wing of the Lagos Airport.

Admittedly, we are better late than never. The remodelling of airports across Nigeria is most certainly a welcome development, but must not be seen as an ultimate solution to the problem of airport quality and capacity. Ongoing project have brought noticeable improvements at Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Malfunctioning and non-operational air conditioning and conveyor belts have been either replaced or repaired; floors have been tiled in the immigration/baggage collection area. The ambience is a lot more serene.

But, the question remains – how long will this last in a country not known for effective and sustained maintenance of existing infrastructure? True, the airport is cleaner with many new restaurants and duty-free stores opening. But, this is still a far cry from what prevails internationally.

The Piarco International Airport at Trinidad and Tobago, for instance, a small Caribbean country, has more duty-free shops than Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, and the International Airport at Abuja, put together. To think that Nigeria’s leaders travel abroad and see the quality and capacity of other international airports all over the world and still come back home regularly without a whimper regarding the state of our own airports until lately is one that should stupefy any reasonable and right-thinking Nigerian. If Nigeria is truly to become the most dominant economy in Africa by 2030, then our leaders must begin to think of a world-class international airport at Lagos, which could be by either fundamentally restructuring and expanding the existing airport at Lagos, or building a new one entirely.

The Federal Executive Council has just approved the new National Civil Aviation Policy. The new policy replaces the earlier one that had been in operation for three decades. A highlight of the deliverables listed in the review include safe and secure air transport system, improvement in passengers’ comfort, levels of efficiency and professionalism as well as provision of effective policy and administrative services framework. These are laudable goals, but it says nothing of a world-class international airport. Our aviation minister, Stella Oduah must be commended for this new policy and for ongoing infrastructure remodelling going on at our airports. She certainly realises that Nigeria’s airports are far below world-class standards. But, we are still far behind our major competitor in Africa.

London’s Heathrow Airport was the third busiest in 2012 as well as third largest in the world. Yet, hardly a week passes by without Londoners being inundated with the question of either expanding Heathrow’s capacity, or building a new airport at either Stansted or the Thames Estuary. This has become one of the touchiest subjects in London’s political economy. The London Evening Standard will be hosting a debate on what to do about London’s aviation capacity crisis on 27th June, 2013 at the Emmanuel Centre, Westminster. The issues to be debated include a third runway at Heathrow and the possibility of building a new £50billion island airport in the Thames Estuary. Panellists will include the chief of British Airways owner IAG Willie Walsh, Daniel Moylan, the Mayor’s key adviser on aviation, writer Alain de Botton, Katja Hall, CBI Chief Policy Director and environmental campaigner TamsinOmond; and, the debate will be chaired by Jon Sopel, broadcaster and journalist. If you ask me, this is the mark of a serious country recognising that despite its current economic challenges within the broader EU, the UK must continue to remain competitive to global businesses. That it has taken Nigeria three decades to consider remodelling its airports is eloquent testimony about the quality of leadership we have had.

On the question, what would it take for Nigeria to build a world-class international airport; I do not know in quantitative terms. What I do know is that the funding would not come from the private pockets of our politicians/leaders. Neither would they be required to carry bricks to build any part of this airport or be required to contribute to its funding in any way.

Supposedly, funding may come partly from the federation account, private sector and/or international financiers, but certainly not our leaders and, therefore, poses no inconvenience to them. I also know that depending on the aesthetic, quality, size and estimated capacity, the cost can be put together by specialist local/international consultants/project developers. It should not be impossible to build, or construct. I also do know that ultimately, Nigeria would be far better off economically as well as in burnishing its beleaguered international image. Why then has this been such a Herculean task for various Nigerian administrations is what I do not know.

Ibibia Lucky Worika is a member of International Bar Association (IBA) and the Climate & Energy Expert Group of the Commission on Environmental Law (IUCN).

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