A look at the title of this piece might appear a bit misleading and confusing as to the purport and intent of the message. At first glance, it would appear I am soliciting the assistance or protection from Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) in safeguarding our lives. If construed in that manner, the reader might not be distant from the real message, as the ultimate desire is to galvanize support for FAAN to save our lives. On the other hand, it may be interpreted that I am seeking urgent intervention of FAAN to make probably some payments long overdue in the nature of protesting workers. While the latter interpretation is completely off the mark, the earlier interpretation is not my destination per se. Rather, it is the converse that is my intent. But the immediate query is, the safety of whose lives am I soliciting?
They are the lives of air travellers/passengers within, from and into Nigeria. This is not to say that the entire nation will not ultimately be affected. This implies that the relevant authorities need to save FAAN from drowning in order to save those of us that are users of its facilities and patrons of its services.
In my Twitter engagement of Sunday, June 28, 2020, I hinted that I would be elaborating on the issues raised therein about the challenges facing FAAN in maintaining all our airports. Prior to that intervention, I had, on not less than two occasions in recent times via my Twitter handle, castigated the performance of FAAN and, by extension, the Aviation Ministry for one infraction or the other that I considered inimical to the safety and comfort of air passengers. In some of the reactions I received on the above referenced June 28, Twitter message, the issue of consessioning of the airports featured prominently. Undoubtedly, I am for concessioning equally, but the process cannot occur overnight. It is a process leading to a beneficial project but which requires a lot of preparation, perfection and legal documentation. While that is still in the offing, or work in progress, are we going to fold our arms doing nothing as to endanger various air passengers?
I DO NOT THINK SO! Apart from this, even if concessioning is taking place or we even want to auction the airports, the truth is that they must still be upgraded to a certain minimum standard before they can be effectively and profitably disposed of. Remember that flights are not going to stop while the concessioning goes on. Passengers are still going to continue to utilise the airports. What this portends, therefore, is that the airport facilities have to be continuously maintained. The present structure is that FAAN fends for itself by generating revenue for both its capital investments and operations in all the airports.
As at date, I understand that FAAN manages between 21 and 23 airports in the country. Of this number, only two to three, at best, are viable in terms of sustainability. I also understand that an average airport requires not less than a million-passenger traffic to stay afloat, not to talk of making profit. Aside from two of them, Lagos and Abuja airports, I doubt if any other one meets this threshold. Thus, it is the revenue from the two or three that is eventually used to service others.
Apart from this being insufficient to cover the recurrent expenditure in all the airports, infrastructural renewal that is capital-intensive in nature becomes a mirage to realise. Little wonder that you still find some equipment like ordinary generating sets being over 30 years old in some of the airports. Some of the equipment that are not that healthy are managed for operations, which certainly is not acceptable in the aviation industry. Most of the airports operate below service level. In most of them, once power supply goes off, control towers operations become impaired while night landing is a luxury in a whole lot of them.
How did the Federal Government and, by extension, FAAN come into custody of these airports without the enabling capacity to maintain and sustain them? On this issue, I went out of my way to investigate and interrogate relevant personnel.
My discovery was that, most times, these airports were originally constructed by state governments and, after managing them for a year or two, the burden of maintenance became unbearable for them as the cost was often astronomical. They subsequently cleverly lobbied and cajoled the Federal Government into assuming management. Upon thrusting these airports on FAAN, no corresponding budgetary provisions are ever made to cater for their maintenance and sustenance. The authority is expected to continue to manage them through revenue from the viable two or three airports.
This is what has now put FAAN in a precarious situation as to be struggling to manage and sustain the airport facilities. As it struggles to meet the personnel costs and other routine expenditures, major infrastructural renewal takes the back seat. This is the route to the perilous state of the authority today. With COVID-19 pandemic’s excruciating toll, FAAN is now comatose, as all flights are grounded. The main source of revenue being international flights, which are no longer taking place, no income is expected therefrom and neither are the local flights providing any promise of profitable resumption soon. As the closure has taken some months, equipment is due for greasing, repair and some could have become totally unserviceable, thereby calling for total overhaul or complete replacement. This requires sizeable expenditure that cannot come from anywhere else except financial intervention from the relevant bodies. Thus, I was not surprised that the reopening of the airports had to be postponed the last time, although for reasons unknown to me; I suspect strongly that it might not be unconnected with the question of funding.
There is no way that the authority that is still struggling to pay salaries and emoluments will be able to resurrect and regenerate the airport facilities simultaneously. The essence of going this far to demonstrate the near morbid state of FAAN is to alert all the relevant financial intervention bodies of the Federal Government to hastily rescue the authority in our collective interest, that is, air passengers. In this regard, the legislators have a role to play in the appropriation of funds.
The COVID-19 intervention bodies like the Presidential Task Force, the Central Bank of Nigeria, the NNPC and their ilk must act now. After all, most of the donors are users of the airport facilities and the catalysts for our economic growth. We must appreciate the fact that the airports constitute the bedrock of our transportation activities, which in turn aid economic development and growth. Air travel, in all ramifications, remains the safest means of transportation in the country. To stave off probable danger, there must be intervention immediately.
The history of aviation in Nigeria has had its own slice of catastrophes, which are still fresh in memory. They are quite recent beyond what can be quickly forgotten as their devastations result in deprivations of huge magnitudes. Of recent in aviation history in this country was when planes were falling from the sky like tired or intoxicated birds. All over the world, the safety of passengers has always been taken as priority and Nigeria must not be an exception.
It is, therefore, critically important, so that we do not witness situations where planes would be pushed to ignition like rickety buses of Omoge Oko, the popular transporter of our childhood days whose fleet was made of rickety trucks and still had the pride to describe them as virgin vehicles. Such financial intervention is not unique to Nigeria. It is a step taken in all civilised climes to ensure safety and adequate protection of life and property. An airport that is starved of funds can hardly be better than a motor park where all manner of slime and grime pass for appealing aesthetics.
Being the first point of contact to foreigners, it is the flashing advert for tourism to any foreign visitor. Its importance cannot be appreciated with simple description. And that is why proper maintenance of airport facilities is not a negotiable sacrifice. A nation that does not take care of its aviation industry is not only courting disaster but is definitely not prepared for development in this day and age when some countries survive solely on tourism as foreign exchange earner. It is important the authorities take this seriously. If the money-earning aspect of airport management and aesthetics do not appeal to all stakeholders, kindly let our lives appeal. At least, black lives matter, not only in the United States but also in Nigeria.
Pending the concessioning of the airports, I advocate and plead for budgetary intervention for the renewal of their infrastructure. In addition, the concessioning programme must commence in earnest, as it is no more globally fashionable for the state to manage airports.
I conclude that the life of FAAN needs to be saved now in order to save our lives, the air travellers.