The Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Finchglow Travels, Mr Bankole Bernard in this interview with REPORTERS speaks on sundry issues affecting Nigeria’s aviation sector ranging from the controversial airport concession, commercial viability of airports, to the state of airports across the country.
Concessioning or commercialisation of airports, which is more effective?
We have all been distracted with the concessioning of the four major airports in Nigeria that we consider to be viable and we have neglected other airports all in the name of the fact that they are not commercially viable and my question is: Where is the document that revealed to any of us that those airports are not commercially viable? Are we looking at passengers as the only means that make an airport commercially viable?
As a matter of fact, let me tell you that airport terminals are no longer what they used to be. As a matter of fact, in some countries, they have turned their airports into a shopping mall – local and international where you can do and undo with a lot of things.
And that alone attracts passengers to ply such airport. So, if we have such a viable business outlook, why should we continue to say an airport is not commercially viable? There are quite a lot of things that we need to do and when we put those things in the right perspective, an airport becomes commercially viable.
If you say it is not commercially viable, why don’t you allow those that have interest in those airports to turn them around? I have always said it that government is not in a business of doing business. They are regulators. They should stick to their strength, which is regulating, while we allow the business people to handle the business aspect of this?
How do they handle the business aspect of it? Government can allow them to take some critical business decisions by allowing them to run the business the way it should be. I have been to some airports around the world and I will give you some instance.
Do you know that the Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) Thurgood Marshall Airport in United States as small as it is, it is an active airport. It is active because they are building more shops and renovating the place so people can enjoy the airport
Akure airport for instance had only one airline going there before, but now about three airlines go there. Are you still saying the traffic is still the way it was? Let me remind you at this point that Nigerians are constantly developing the culture of flying.
Statistics reveal that the recovery of travel in Nigeria is the highest in the world. The figure is higher than the world and continent figures. But this is the same place where we have no money nor do we have a national carrier. This tells you that there is a culture. We have developed the flying culture and the number keeps increasing by the day. If the number is increasing by the day, it means it is a viable market.
They shouldn’t tell us our airports are not commercially viable. People like us that come in have even the opportunity to prove that these airports are viable. How do you make an airport viable when you only put on the generator when you have an aircraft approaching and the moment the aircraft lands, you put off the generator again? This will not be viable because you have lost communication, so even when people show up and they can’t get electricity, they will probably stop.
There are quite a lot of things we need to do to make our airports commercially viable as long as there is a genuine interest and we give it to those that are passionate about the industry and not give it to our friends to manage.
They have gone far with their concessioning of the four presumed viable airports. The question is what happens to the rest? Why are we not talking about it? Can we shift attention to the ones we think are not viable and take a look at it? And if they can make it viable, it becomes a different story. So, let them continue with their concessioning, but the ones you think are not commercially viable can be looked into and we can see how they can be turned around by private sector people that can make it commercially viable.
The thing about government policies and decisions cannot be reversed because I don’t have that power to reverse it, but I have the initiative to make them look into other things, which are the ones they consider unviable and let us make them commercially viable.
You are the president of the association of aviation training organisations of Nigeria. What gave birth to the association and what do you intend to change?
I have always had this principle that guides me, which is professionalism. This is the first step to shared prosperity. If you find yourself in an environment where professionalism thrives, it means the standard will be high and things will be done properly. So, when you look at the aviation industry, you will find out that a lot of attention is given to the airlines because the regulators and service providers believe that that is where the money comes from and other areas have been neglected.
It is the minister that decided to even pay attention to NCAT by getting them simulators to improve learning in the school. I can say to you today that we are not more than 20 in the sector and it shouldn’t be. In a society of over 200 million people, everyone wants to be pilots and cabin crew; we need to speak out loud about our profession. People are not aware that they could do other courses other than becoming a pilot or engineer. What happened to flight dispatch? This is one of the courses we do in our school and many more.
We don’t have to put pressure on NCAT; Nigeria is a big country with 36 states and we all work together in one way or the other. How can we create publicity and awareness among these ATOs so that others that are not registered can now register with NCAA? Not only register with NCAA, other investors who are looking for areas to invest in the sector can also come in. that is what we need to do. Aviation journalists can also help us to raise the standard by coming up with things that that will challenge us. We need to start showcasing what we have.
Aviation is huge and big all over the world and that is what it should be in Nigeria, too. We have been shouting that we want to make Nigeria the hub of aviation in Africa. How will this happen? Will it just become a hub? It is what we say about ourselves that will determine this.
Recovery from post-COVID-19 travel in Nigeria, what is really driving the traffic in Nigeria?
The reason for this is not far-fetched. The cogent reason is the insecurity in the country. A lot of people are resisting traveling by road and prefer to go by air because you have to the realization that it is cheaper to travel by air than to go by road because if you get kidnapped, you will bring out the money that you didn’t plan to spend.
Also, people are beginning to appreciate time value. Why do I need to spend 24hrs on the road when I can do it in one hour? It is just for you to factor the cost into what you are doing. And people are beginning to think that way. People are beginning to appreciate their time and time is one thing that you can’t just afford to throw away.
After Covid-19, it will be foolish of anybody to allow somebody to waste your time without any cogent reason. A lot of people died and we have come to realize that every second matters. That is what has changed.
Also, politics has started and it is driving the traffic. You know the election year is not the time for the election. It is usually a year before the election. Politics has started since January.
State or federal governments-owned airports?
When you check from the regulator, whether state or federal airports, they are still under the NCAA rule. If NCAA doesn’t give an approval, it can’t operate and government is the same anywhere in the world. it is just in this part of the world that we try to demarcate one from the other.
Since government is the same, it means the users of the airports must just see it as the same. In a state owned airports, are the state governments saying the airports are not commercially viable? If they are saying same, then, let them give it out to a private sector that will run them effectively and efficiently that you will produce the kind of result that you like.
When you look around the airport, you will discover that there are a zillion and one thing that you can do.
If you give the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA), Lagos to run for one year, I will turn it around to the extent that I will triple the income that comes in. there are certain things that you will not joke with. How effective are the wifi within our airports? And it has to be free usage for everybody. For everybody that logs in, I am capturing their data. With that alone, I can tell you what the traffic is at that airport.
Then, the shops now become viable because they now have internet to trace and monitor a lot of things. Look at the toilets, why will you get to a toilet and the whole place is in a mess? Water on the floor, yet somebody is being paid?
We have to remove all manners of sentiments. Let the best man that can do the job do it. These are the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Those things are necessary.
The car park; there must be an arrangements whereby cars are parked and the government is making money from it. The car parks are not properly managed. You don’t have to see anybody there giving out tickets and collecting money. When you travel abroad , you don’t see anybody at the car park. From the terminal, you have paid your toll. The Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras are there monitoring activities. Then can we say our airports are not viable? They are, but it is just our approach that we create around it.
Then, we should stop this idea of do you know who I am? Who are you? we are all VIPs. If we all respect the law, we will make this country good for us and our generation yet to come.