Governors and wasteful, egocentric airports


Those who want all the states in Nigeria to have airports always refer to developed nations as the yardstick. They argue that Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, three giant airports, are all in London, the British capital.

They also argue that LaGuardia, the airport in neighbouring New Jersey, is 30 minutes’ drive from John Kennedy International Airport in New York. Even Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington DC is pretty close to the busy airport in Virginia.

The contention is that in North America, Europe and South-east Asia, airports are clustered around each other at such proximity that if a Boeing 737 takes off from one, it would hardly attain the maximum cruising altitude of 33,000 feet before it starts descending on the next one.

That is the development between Margaret Ekpo International in Calabar, Cross River state and Ibom International airports in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state. Airlines combining flights for the two airports often touch down first in Calabar before heading for Uyo. The journey between the two airports is a scant seven minutes of flight time.

A Boeing 737 aircraft taking off at Margaret Ekpo International for Ibom International flies just above tree level throughout the journey before it starts descending for landing. The journey is often a very risky one because at that altitude, if anything happens, the aircraft is on the ground within seconds.

State governors in egocentric frenzy to build airports are all creating the dangerous proximity crisis painted above. The truth is that Nigeria and the developed nations that have airports close to each other are worlds apart in terms of meeting requirements for siting of airports.

The United States of America (USA), the world’s largest economy, has a superb income distribution system that empowers a good chunk of its 332 million people to fund air travel. On one frenzied day during the last end of year festivities, 1.3 million people booked for domestic flights in U.S. airlines.

Even during the end of year festivities, Nigeria can hardly field 40, 000 passengers for domestic flights in a day.

The dearth of passengers is so critical that most of the airlines now operate with smaller aircraft with capacity for just 60 passengers.

Nigeria’s economy just cannot sustain the number of seats fielded by the airlines for use by air travelers. The 25 airports in Nigeria accounted for a paltry 17 million passengers in 2019. JFK International alone was used by 31 million passengers at the same period. Less than one per cent of Nigeria’s 207 million people can afford air travel.

Besides, those on the lower end of the middle income bracket can no longer afford air travel. Inflation and a weak naira have combined to price air travel beyond their reach. Globally, the air fare for one hour’s flight is in the range of $100.

Ironically, $100 in Nigeria today is equivalent to N57,000. Even the airlines are reluctant to charge that fare for one hour’s flights because they would end up reducing air travel to the exclusive preserve of Nigeria’s infinitesimal super rich.

That development is responsible for the symbiotic indigence plaguing Nigerian airlines and air passengers. It raises the issue about the economic logic behind the frenzy by state governors to build new airports. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) contends that for an airport to be viable, it must have a passenger turnover of five million in a year.

Only Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja have ever met that criterion.

The airports in Port Harcourt and Kano are just managing to survive. In all, only five of Nigeria’s 25 airports can be rated as considerably viable. The remaining 20 are either completely idle or are huge financial burdens to their operators.

The state governors toiling to build new airports are ignorant of the viability crisis rocking Nigerian airports. They have rather selfish reasons for embarking on the ambitious projects. It borders on ego trip and selfish gains because the airports built by the state governors are useless to millions of the state indigenes toiling below poverty line.     

The ambitious airport projects by state governors are largely designed to satisfy their selfish desire to take off and land in their states whenever they travel.

The other reason is fraudulent financial gains. Airport projects are very expensive ventures. They consume more money than building a 50-kilometer road that would be used by millions in the state. That lures some governors into awarding the juicy contracts and getting their cuts from there.

Bayelsa International Airport that was grudgingly commissioned last November after more than a year delay by the civil aviation regulatory body, was built at a princely sum of N60 billion.

The airport will be lucky if 5,000 passengers use it in a month. Since most of the same passengers would be using the airport repeatedly, it therefore follows that the N60 billion sunk into the airport project would benefit at most 1, 000 people in a population of about five million.

The money would have created jobs for thousands of idle hands in a state with high unemployment. It would have generated huge multiplier economic effects if it was invested appropriately.

Jigawa state airport was built at N20 billion by a state government that cannot raise N1 billion in internally generated revenue in a month. The airport is useful only to the state governor and members of his cabinet. In the first month of its commissioning, the state government had to pay for all the seats in a private airline to persuade the airline to fly to the idle airport. Such an adventure cannot last in a state that is cash strapped. The airport is simply idle.

One report contends that state governments have wasted N379 billion in airports that were completed but remain idle and those abandoned due to dearth of funds.

Abia state airport falls into the second category listed above. Okezie Ikpeazu, the state governor lamented recently that there was no need to complete the airport because all the states in the south-east have airports. His predecessors had ignored that incontestable economic logic and ploughed scarce resources into a white elephant project.

In all, Ekiti, Nasarawa, Abia, Ogun, Taraba, Osun, Zamfara, Kebbi, Jigawa and Yobe states are struggling either with abandoned airport projects or completed ones that are unviable and draining state resources.

The federal government can curtail the waste of scarce resources in idle airports by insisting that only airports capable of attracting a minimum of one million passengers in a year should be approved for construction.