Why we must concession our Airports, by Aviation Minister

2010-01-31
THE GUARDIAN Newspaper


At the stakeholders' meeting with airline operators, journalists and the general public, in Abuja, during the week, Aviation Minister, Tunde Omotoba, spoke on the issue of funding, aftermath of the Abdulmutallab saga, the subsequent inclusion of Nigeria on the US terror watch list, as well as the attendant security measures at the nation's airports. COLLINS OLAYINKA was at the forum where the Minister fielded questions from worried Nigerians. Excerpts:

Abdulmutallab saga and full body scanners in international airports

The face of aviation in the entire world, not just Nigeria, has been changed by the Abdulmutallab event. That is why every country is making effort to ensure that the level of security is ungraded. It is not only Nigeria that is buying full body scanners. The British Airport Authority (BAA) bought about 45 full body scanners after the incident; Netherlands airport is also buying about 35 full body scanners.

These go to show that the level of scrutiny of passengers has gone up. But what I can tell you about Nigeria is that we have very good professionals working in the Aviation industry. When I heard about this incident around 3am on December 26, within a period of three hours, I was able to assemble the airport security committee - comprising the SSS, NIA, Immigration, FAAN and NCAA - to brief on what had happened; and, within a period of seven hours of continuous deliberation, they were able to reveal what happened showing footsteps of this guy. As he boarded (and checked in) in Lagos, he was captured by our CCTV cameras. The Advanced Passengers Information System (APIS) in our Lagos airport screened this boy and turned no objection. All necessary passenger check-in procedures were followed.

Taken into the screener, Abdulmutallab had removed his shoes. We have all the pictures. In fact, after the screening, he took his bag and started moving; we have all of that.

Remember that we also came out to tell Nigerians that he came into the country around 8.08 pm. He was checked in and checked out by the Immigration; he left the arrival and departure halls to check in at 8.35pm. We narrated his movement because we have all the necessary information. So, there is no evidence of any security lapse in Nigeria.

Of course, you will notice that, few days after the incident, President Obama said that something had gone wrong, because they had that information; and if they had given the information to the appropriate persons in America by the time we screened the document, the APIS would have returned objection. So, nobody is looking at Nigeria's aviation sector as deficient.

However, what we got was that Nigeria and some other countries that were not involved got their names listed as countries to be watched. There are several ways of responding to this. Number one, we could be angry, and say we don't want to deal with America anymore. You can fight; but that will take you nowhere, because fighting will not take our name off the list.

Our name will only be taken off the list with a two-prong approach. One is to do what is expected of the Aviation sector, which is to show the world that we have increased the level of security, while we also apply a bit of diplomacy.

So, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Assembly (through its Committee on Foreign Affairs) should be doing the diplomatic aspect, while the Ministry of Aviation will continue to abide with international standards. After the incident, an official of the US Homeland Security visited Nigeria, and together with her entourage, we met with the NCAA. We reviewed all what we have been doing in Nigeria to ensure safety. They don't have any problem with Nigeria. So, for us, all the programmes on ground, including the FTA Category Certification, are not going to be affected.

Secondly, we are exploring the chances of resolving the problem through the European Union, because such pronouncement of putting the Aviation industry of a country on the list is against the EU anti-discriminatory rules. The Director-General of NCAA and the Director of Security of FAAN are currently attending an Aviation Safety conference in Australia, where this issue is also to be discussed. And, of course, through the instrumentality of ICAO, a high-level meeting of Ministers from the United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Nigeria, is coming up in the next few weeks; and the essence is to review this issue.

We are doing our best to ensure that Nigeria is removed from that list. The message from government is very clear: "Nigeria is not a terrorist nation." The unfortunate incident is not our fault, because this is not the first time a citizen of a country will commit crime elsewhere. It is wrong to punish millions of people for a crime committed by one man.

So, for us, we are working and we believe that, very soon, our efforts will yield results. However, it is easy for you to say that when we use full body scanner on you, we are invading your privacy. But if you have been one of the passengers on that Delta flight, I am sure you will not be saying that by now because you see your own life collapsing in your hands within a period of 10 seconds. So, it is everybody all over the world that is going through the same process; and we should not try to make it a big deal.

Currently the directive from the Federal Government is that everybody must be screened. And we are not considering any Very Important Personality (VIP); every Minister must remove his or her shoes and that is what I do myself. I have given directive that if anybody refuses screening, such a person must not board the aircraft. We must do this to show that we are safe.

Up till now, there has not been any proof that the explosives originated from Nigeria, even though we have not been able to prove otherwise. So, I want to tell you that I don't really see much difference between what is happening today and what will happen in future. However, we have also made it very clear that the way our citizens are treated in America is the same way that Americans will be treated here, because it is not acceptable.

Ageing manpower and support for domestic airline operators

What I can tell you is that we are addressing it. We are doing many things that have not been done in the last 10 years. Few weeks ago, an international organization contacted me that they wanted to build maintenance hanger in Nigeria, and I assured them that we have the old Nigeria Airways engineers, who could help them to start the business. We have assets here and when the time comes, we will tap into them.

On assistance for domestic operators, the Federal Government is fully aware of the plight of airline operators. Two weeks ago, there was a stakeholders' meeting, where the government set up a committee (headed by the Special Assistant to the President) to come up with recommendations on what is to be done. As soon as we get the recommendations - and these will emanate from the airline operators that are seated here - we would act on them.

On some major airport projects

It is true that, initially, the World Bank wanted to finance the ILS project. However, we had a problem with the arrangement, because, after the screening and selection process by the World Bank, the Federal Government chose not to do business with that contractor. Now, it is the practice of the World Bank to blacklist contractors if they have issues. And this is exactly the case with this particular contractor. He is actually in litigation with the Federal Government over some issues and he is also under investigation by the EFCC. Based on all of these, the Federal Government felt that doing business with a litigant would affect its re-branding programme. So, we chose rather not to do business with the contractor for now until he is cleared.

Consequently, I applied to the President, and he approved that NAMA should use part of its Internally Generated Revenue to procure that ILS. So, NAMA is going to advertise; and I actually met with the World Bank, its officials came in last week. They would turn in their bid document to us. We would look at some procurement they had done in the past, since they told us that they procured an ILS in Guinea and that it was very cheap. So, we want to look at that and make sure that we buy at the cheapest price.

The 10 full body scanners (together with two years maintenance, installation, clearing and training) will cost the Federal Government N488 million. So, the cost of one scanner is about N48.8 million.

At the moment, we have only one airport in Nigeria with a workable wind shear alert system - the one in Abuja airport. And because of safety concerns of the Federal Government - and to prevent the incidence of low-level wind shear bringing down an airplane - the Federal Government plans to install wind shear alert system in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano. I also want you to know that this is one of the projects that the World Bank was originally supposed to do. However, its procurement process was going to take about 12 months and the Federal Government could not wait for them to be choosing consultants while we have another plane crash, because you know that the absence of wind shear (which is a sudden change in direction of wind) could easily bring down planes on low altitude.

The wind shear alert system is supposed to warn pilots when there is an incident of wind shear around the airport for them not to land or take off until it is cleared. So, if there is a wind shear anywhere, and there is no alarm, we will be in trouble. That is why the Federal Government is now buying wind shear alert equipment.

We are discussing with the World Bank and they are going to move their own to other airports such as Benin, Enugu or Kaduna.

It has been said that, in the last 10 years, the Aviation industry has not invested as much as it did in 2009. I want to tell you that this is not to the credit of Tunde Omotoba; the credit is to President Umaru Yar'Adua. When he appointed me, he told me that he wanted to be able to sleep well; he wanted me to take the burden of Aviation off his shoulders; and that he does not want to think of Aviation anymore, which means that he does not want the incident of air accidents. Even though, by December 17, 2008, the budget was already being worked on, I made sure I immediately worked with the heads of parastatals.

We looked at various critical safety projects. Most of them were ongoing for a number of years; some of them were in the process of being implemented, but were not awarded, because of cash constraints. We were to list them out. Mr. President provided everything I requested. So, it is to his credit that we were able to spend all the money, and we have been able to see major transformations in our airspace within the period of one year.

I'm glad that this country has not experienced any air accident since I became Minister of Aviation. Few weeks ago, when the mock exercise in Kano was being carried out, people called me to say that there was an air crash that killed about 100 people in Kano. I told them that what I told my God when I took this job was that, throughout my tenure, there wouldn't be any air crash. It was after I said this that they said they were doing mock exercise and that they wanted to shake my confidence a little.

On the other hand, there are so many things that discourage me and I don't know how to rank them. One of them is the attitude of public service employees. I came from the private sector; the work culture in that sector is completely different from what you see in public service. An item that is signed and approved today in the private sector can be sure to be executed by tomorrow. But in the public sector, in three or four months, you are still on it. They keep giving excuses.

I tell you, this is one of the things that worry me. But I am happy that we have worked together for one year now and some very good people have been able to pick up their speed. So, we get things done faster now.

Let me use the scanner as an example: the incident happened December 25; and by December 3, we announced that we were going to buy scanners. By December 31, I wrote a memo to the Ministry of Finance and the Vice President. Both of them approved it the same day. We called the National Assembly and they agreed the same day. Then it was easy for us to move. So, I can see major improvements.

On use of old aircraft

I know that the Chairman of Air Operators of Nigeria is an aviator. I am not an aviator; I am an accountant. Let me tell you something that I know. When an aircraft is about 22 years old, the rate of checks increases and I am sure aviators will agree with me. So, an aircraft that is 22 years old and was going on check once in three months before, will now do that once in a month. At that point, the revenue level of the airline has not gone up, but its expense level has gone up. What you do is that you deceive us in the Ministry of Aviation by making us feel you are maintaining it, whereas you are not actually doing that.

To prevent this kind of situation, the Federal Government fixed 22 years, and we are going to stick by it. No amount of push will make me change my mind.

Funding the Aviation Ministry

I talked about funding before now. The budget we got in 2009, and the one we would get in 2010 are only channelled to critical safety areas. That is the reason we have good facilities at the airports. We have been able to fix the air space; but what you see when you land, after you have gone through all the turbulence, is not well-fixed because money is not enough.

We are tackling this in two ways: This year, we are going to shift our focus a little bit to fix some of the terminals at four major international airports. Secondly, the way out is to concession these airports. Consider the cost of building just one terminal. If European group spent 10 billion dollars building terminal five, then you can look at me and ask me: How much would you spend to build two terminals in Lagos. Maybe, we need about 600 million dollars. When you take Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt and you want to make them look like what they should be, what will be needed to build the four terminals will be more than the capital budget of Nigeria.

So, the solution is concessioning. Currently, I am dialoguing with unions to let them know that the Federal Government is not embarking on a programme to make people lose their jobs. We have set standards. During my tenure, SAHCOL was privatized and I did not interfere for one day. I did not call the ICRC or BPE for one day. I did not discuss with the CEO of SAHCOL. I allowed the programme to take its natural course, and the employees were fully paid before I handed over SAHCOL. We are also going to take care of all the stakeholders in the concessioning, and I tell you, this is the way forward. Otherwise, we will be here in 10 years still complaining of broken toilets, the Air conditioning system not working, and all of that.

I want to reiterate that the Ministry of Aviation will co-operate with any state that is willing to build an airport. However, we have the sole responsibility to choose and approve the location of such airports. Therefore, in a situation where a state comes and picks a location arbitrarily, we will not approve.

Of course, if we don't approve it, there can be no security clearance. We are very committed and I assure you that any State that is ready and willing, and has got the money, and has passed security clearance by the National Security Adviser, would be able to build an airport.

 

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