Stories by Louis Ibah
Strategically located at the heart of the Delta State capital, Asaba Airport commenced operation in 2011 with the core objective of easing the plight of air travellers within the state and the adjoining business community in Onitsha, Anambra State, across the Niger River. The Asaba Airport is one of the thriving airports owned by a state government in Nigeria. The others are sited in Jigawa and Akwa Ibom states, among others.
Over the last four years, four major airlines have operated into the Asaba Airport: Overland Airways, Aero Contractors, Air Peace and Arik Air. Daily Sun recently visited the Asaba airport where it was learnt that because facilities are being upgraded at the airport, it is currently restricted to the technologically adaptable turboprop aircraft.
Why grow Asaba Airport
Delta State, nicknamed “The Big Heart” is undoubtedly one of Nigeria’s crude oil producing states. But in recent months, with crude oil price crashing and incomes dwindling, the state is obviously seeking fresh means to generate additional revenues from the non-oil sector so it doesn’t end up with a “weak heart” where it can’t fund its developmental projects.
Aviation, indeed, offers the state one such opportunity. In fact, the state Governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, has never been shy to state that he is out to harness the tourism and cultural diversity of Delta State. The accelerated development of the economy of Delta State is strategic to the development of the economies of various regions in the country, especially the South-East and South-South regions, which makes air transport an important element in the efforts to develop the state.
According to the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Overland Airways, Mrs. Aanu Benson, the Asaba Airport would have a great role to play in the actualisation of Okowa’s vision. “At this stage, the vital support of air transport becomes a crucial catalyst in achieving the diversification of Delta State’s potent economy and supporting the movement of tourists and indigenes whose activities would preserve the splendid culture, traditions and social well-being of Delta State,” said Benson.
“The current trend of Delta State’s economy calls for reliable, efficient, comfortable and people-oriented and well-managed airline to fast-track the economy at the heart of the Niger Delta that inspires other economies in the region and the country,” Benson added.
What should be done
To grow Asaba Airport implies attracting enough passenger and cargo airlines to generate the requisite income for the airport and the state government. And this can only be achieved with airlines that are professionally structured, economically sound and shielded from risk of collapse under huge debt overhang and such an airline must be essentially safe and secure. The issue of keeping to scheduled flight departure time is of importance to airlines and passengers alike. These attributes should be the hallmark of any airline that wants to assist in the development of a state-owned airport like Asaba Airport.
The Overland Airways example
Globally today, the airline industry is characterised by very slim profit margins. The industry generally has several loss-making carriers, those that manage to break even, and airlines that are (barely) profitable. Despite industry challenges, forward-looking airlines like Overland Airways, which operates frequent flights into the Asaba Airport structure their operations in the best way to create the lasting mutual benefits between them and their host communities. Officials of the airline told Daily Sun that “operational reasons and the needs of the community have been utmost in Overland Airways’ decision to adjust its services or go into new services.”
Most aviation analysts in Nigeria have always pointed at the success story of Overland Airways in the deployment of its fleet of the turboprop aircraft in the development of the Asaba Airport and other airports across Nigeria as one that has benefitted hinterland communities and airports.
The turboprop aircraft
Though the turboprop aircraft are in themselves remarkably suited to short-distance flights in terms of their technological configuration, the excellence of Overland Airways in bringing out the best in this brand of aircraft is most admirable and worthy of emulation by airlines that want to develop Nigeria’s smaller airports. At the Asaba Airport, officials said Overland has shown great professionalism, technical competence and managerial proficiency in operating the turboprops, which can operate to small airports like the Asaba Airport. These aircraft are called ‘rugged’, as one analyst describes their universality and versatility, noting that “while a jet aircraft arrives 10 minutes ahead of a turboprop, the time difference is too short for anyone not to enjoy the best suited aircraft for the short-distance journey in which the turboprop is clearly unmatched in efficiency and operational excellence and reliability.”
In fact, it was Overland Airways that performed the first-ever flight to Asaba Airport from Lagos with this aircraft, to prove the viability of air transport in hinterland and secondary airport environments, especially in Delta State. That feat re-energised the economic activities in Delta State and surrounding states. Overland Airways is adding Saturday flights to the Asaba-Abuja flights from December 17 and plans to start the Asaba-Lagos flights subsequently.
Mrs. Benson said the currently operating Asaba-Abuja flights were started by Overland Airways out of a conviction that the airport remains pivotal to government efforts to harness the aviation sector’s potential for economic growth.
“Overland Airways took the remarkable step to service Nigeria’s hinterland and hub economies, and to also provide safe, comfortable and reliable air connectivity to empower individuals, small and large businesses as well as local economies in Nigeria and the sub-region,” said Benson.
“With Overland Airways’ operational excellence with the turboprop aircraft, Nigerians have come to love flying them. These are globally renowned aircraft for their supreme economics and safety performance on regional and short routes. We are one of the most economically stable and viable airlines in Africa today and we have operated steadily with uninterrupted flights over these past years with good safety and operational performance, which is why Overland Airways’ model and achievement are celebrated.
“And the case of Asaba Airport is no different. Overland Airways is at the heart of the future development of Delta State. We will support the economy of Delta State and make a difference in the economic and social lives of citizens, residents and neighbouring communities like Onitsha. We will also link the development drive in the state to several economies within Nigeria and hopefully West Africa as the airline works out strategic partnerships with customers, and mainly the government and people of Delta State,” Benson added.
While Overland Airways provides Delta State and its environs an excellent means of movement for business and leisure, the airline has shown commitment to boost the development of secondary or state government-owned airports in Nigeria.
Bi-Courtney demands unhindered development of MMA2
Bi-Courtney Aviation Limited is demanding that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) allow it to re-commence the development of a mono rail, fuel hydrant, hotel, conference centre and power plant, which constituted parts of the original projects for the Murtala Muhammed Airport Two (MMA2) under the terms of a concession it had with the Federal Government.
Bi-Courtney, in a statement over the weekend, said the concession was to span between 2003 and 2016 but noted that FAAN had consistently breached the agreement without any consideration for the impact on the ability of Bi-Courtney to recoup its investment in line with the objectives of the concession agreement. Bi-Courtney wants to be allowed to operate regional flights out of the MMA2 terminal to African countries, while it also wants FAAN to halt its operations at the MMA1 terminal, saying these were part of an exclusive clause inserted into the concession agreement to enable it recoup its investment.
“FAAN should be prevailed upon to comply with the laws of Nigeria. Bi-Courtney should be allowed to continue the development of MMA2 unhindered as earlier approved, especially with the provision of such facilities like mono rail, hotel, conference centre, fuel hydrant and power plant which will bring the airport to world-class standard,” the statement said.
“The GAT (MMA1) operations by FAAN in contravention of the exclusive clause in the agreement with Bi-Courtney has, in fact, reduced by more than 50 per cent our revenue expectations from MMA2. Bi-Courtney had invested heavily in infrastructure in preparation for regional flights by airlines and FAAN should be encouraged to facilitate the commencement of regional flights for which we had been granted approval under the two previous administrations,” the statement stated.
The company said contrary to repeated insinuations in the public domain, the process that led to Bi-Courtney being granted the concession to build the MMA2 terminal was wholly transparent. “We were not even the initial awardee of the concession and was only invited to take over as a reserve bidder after the termination of the agreement with Sanderton Ventures Limited for non-performance. “In line with international best practice, there is need for clarification of the respective roles of FAAN and NCAA vis-a-vis the concessionaire under this PPA arrangement. As an independent concession under strict regulations, therefore, FAAN as a guarantor cannot rightly also be a competitor; and NCAA must be able to impartially mediate and regulate any issues arising from the concession granted by FAAN to B concessionaire,” the statement added.
Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Privatisation says it would block plans by the Federal Government to concession four of the country’s international airports unless a probe that unravels the cause of the controversy over the concession of the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA2), Lagos, to Bi-Courtney Aviation Limited was first carried out.
Chairman, Senate Committee on Privatisation, Senator Ben Bruce, who stated this in Lagos at a press conference decried the refusal of the Federal Government to honour the terms of the concession deal it had with Bi-Courtney in 2006, noting that it could hamper efforts to attract investors with the requisite experience to bid for the proposed concessioning or privatisation of the Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano international airports.
“We won’t allow the four airports to be concessioned when the crisis over the concessioning of the MMA2 has not been settled because it has created a bad image of the country,” he said. “You have to abide by the agreements you sign; you can’t get the best (private sector firms) because they are frightened and will not come knowing that when agreements are signed here, we don’t honour the terms,” Bruce said.