Thursday, January 15, 2009

Celebrating nothing

TWO weeks ago, Chief Babatunde Omotoba, Minister of Aviation, opened the repaired runway of the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos with pageantry. There is a lot to celebrate for the repair of the runway took three years. Congestions at the Lagos airports — domestic and international — have become legendary. The authorities never worry about the congestions; after all, anytime they used the airport, the airspace is open for them, much to the inconvenience of other users, who miss appointments waiting for conclusion of “VIP movements.”

Why celebrate the condemnation of businesses to the shackles of a runway that was in disrepair for three years? There are many reasons. One of them was that opening the runway was the most important thing the aviation sector did in 2008 outside moving some parastatals to Abuja at the cost of billions of Naira to tax payers.

The ministry has cancelled all new projects this year. The movements to Abuja, which serve no useful purpose for the industry, would continue. The bulk of aviation business is in Lagos. The movements to Abuja add to the cost of aviation business.

Chief Omotoba must make a difference. He started with mediocrity. The runway he commissioned does not have lights. It is useless at night. The congestions at Lagos airports remain from evenings when all aircraft share one runway.

International operations are at their peak at this time and flights bad weather delayed from different parts of the country queue in Lagos for landing. Last Tuesday, between 6.00 p.m. and 8.00 p.m., planes hovered on the average for 45 minutes before landing. The costs on time and aviation fuel are enormous. Since one runway serves the airports, flights that were ready to take off sat on the tarmac consuming expensive aviation fuel.

With Lagos as the hub of most airlines, the delays spread to airports across the country. There are other costs. Families estimate how long their loved ones should be aboard and spend hours pondering their fate. Passengers must switch off their phones once aircraft doors are shut, cutting them off from their people.

Aviation is not run as a business. Government in its mighty wisdom is reining in the little autonomies that its aviation agencies gained over the years. The consequences are more inefficiency, more ineptitude and endless frustrations for investors as well as passengers.

How many years does it take to build a new airport? We spent three years completing a runway without lights. It is a shame that we celebrated this extremely low standard of accomplishment.

Lagos airports are the most profitable in Nigeria, mismanaging them, with glee, has vast implications for national security and the health of the entire economy. Chief Omotoba’s major assignment should be to make our airports, starting with profitable ones like Lagos , run in very professional manner. If he does, it would not take three years to fix a runway — and celebrate its nothingness.