By Ochereome Nnanna
When the story of Bi-Courtney Air Servicesâ€™ take-over bid of the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) hit newspaper front pages about a fortnight ago, my initial impulse was to support the sentiments being propped up by the various unions operating at the airport.
Civil servants have, however, managed to disillusion me with their red-tapism and corruption, as well as their tendency to use their workers unions to boldface every move to reform the various areas where they hold sway.
It was for this reason that I paused to ponder again over the merits and demerits of a Bi-Courtney takeover of the GAT. I was led to conclude that it might not be such a bad idea for the concessionaire to do with the GAT what they did with Murtala Muhammed Airport Two (MMA2).
Some time ago, what we now know as the MM2 used to be like other airports in Nigeria – ramshackle, sweaty and reminiscent of the days of the Nigerian Airways when passengers boxed one another – and the army of airport touts – just to obtain flight tickets.
The sidewalk and business halls were populated by traders and currency mallams who occupied strategic positions as if to advertise their links to the authorities at the top. Suddenly some years ago, that portion of the local Ikeja Airport went up in a mysterious fire incident.
Rather than rebuild the terminal with public funds, the Obasanjo administration, in one of its rare moments of positive and well-reasoned plans of restoration (possibly because, as some allege, the former President as usual tucked in his personal interest into the arrangement) decided to concession it to a private Nigerian company.
According to the arrangement, this company (Bi-Courtney) was to rebuild and upgrade the terminal, operate it for some years, recoup its investment and make some profits before handing it over back to the Federal Government.
Bi-Courtney took the bull by the horn, approached some local Nigerian banks whose vaults were now overflowing with funds they got from the consolidation and sale of shares to the public. It obtained a hefty loan from about six of these banks and within two years, MMA2 became a reality.
For the first time in the history of Nigeria, an airport terminal of international standard which has already been approved by the relevant international body (IATA) now stands where the old structure used to be. As soon as you walk into the grounds of MMA2, you feel as if you are no longer in Nigeria.
As a frequent traveller who has seen airports both within and outside this country, MMA2, in terms of its concept, facilities and ambience, shows what we can transform Nigeria into if only we mean business in this country.
It is like a terminal transported straight from Europe, America and Asia. The only facility of the sort that comes close to it in Nigeria is the international wing of the Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja (though to me the Abuja facility is a poorer copy).
I have to admit that some aspects of the Nigerian factor are beginning to creep up in the MMA2, which shows some weakness in Bi-Courtneyâ€™s ability to maintain and service this aviation first class setup. For instance, the automated ticketing machines at the entry points into the three-storeyed car park have broken down and have not been repaired for over one year now, and sloppy young workers are now manning them manually.
I am wondering what will happen when more facilities break down due to age or overuse. Will Bi-Courtney allow this early sign of weakness in facility maintenance to take over and eventually render MMA2 a glorified white elephant?
I had thought that some other concessionaires would take the cue from Bi-Courtney and give it a run for its money and try to outclass its performance in other airports, including the GAT. In fact, I was half hoping that Arik Air, the largest fleet in Nigeria, would grab the GAT, build a befitting car park edifice on the current car park space and set up its own terminal there.
Perhaps Aero, the oldest local private airline, would do the same on its own patch of the GAT. In other parts of the developed world, airlines either build or rent ultra-modern terminals in the mould of MMA2, leaving no one in doubt as to their long-term commitment to the aviation business. I would have liked very much if Bi-Courtney was given competition by others.
I am quailed by the prospect of a Bi-Courtney monopoly of the entire Ikeja local airport.
However, in the absence of other takers, and without prejudice to whatever memo of understanding that Bi-Courtney signed with the Ministry of Aviation, I think the company should be allowed to do to the GAT what it successfully did to MMA2.
That should become the template for the complete remaking of our airports nationwide in tune with standards all over the developed world.
Civil servants working in the various departments of the Aviation Ministry have to realise that the period of the Nigerian Airways and other ineffective and corruption-riddled state monopolies are over. Aviation now means business.
Civil servants should go and upgrade themselves and fit into the kind of innovations that private companies like Bi-Courtney are introducing to take Nigeria from the 20th into the 21st century.
However, the regulators of the industry in the Aviation Ministry must keep their eyes and ears open and keep operators like Bi-Courtney to the rule of the game to avoid their becoming so big as to hold the travelling public and other stakeholders to ransom.
If it will take Bi-Courtneyâ€™s invasion of the GAT to bring about another MMA2, so be it.