By Obadiah Mailafia

For millennia, the dream of flying like the birds in the sky-dominated the imagination of visionaries, inventors, shamans, madmen and cranks. Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest genius of all time, used to tie the wings of dead birds on his hands in the vain attempt to fly. As far back as the 16th century, he left behind several designs that look uncannily like the aircraft and spaceships that we know today.

Socrates, the greatest of all the philosophers, opined: ”Man must rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond—for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives”.

The inventors of the airplane, the Wrights brothers,made their first successful flight on December 17, 1903. But it was not until June 1939 that the first trans-Atlantic commercial flight took place. Aviation today is a major pillar of the world economy, employing 87.7 million people and contributing $2.7 trillion,about 3.4% of global GDP. There are128,000 daily flights, with4.7 billion passengers annually. Aviation is critical for global logistics chains, trade and tourism.

However, it also contributes 2.0% to global CO2s emissions. Competition is cut-throat, with bankruptcies not uncommon. Cheaper, no-frills airlines like EasyJet and Ryanair  have stiffened the competition. Rising factor costs, particularly petroleum, remain an abiding challenge. COVID-19 and the unprecedented global lock-down has been a disaster for the industry, incurring over $344 billionlosses and43 airline bankruptcies.

But stakeholders remain bullish. IATA, the global industry regulator, has projectedgrowth of174 % over the next 20 years, with a staggering 9.4 billion passenger journeys by 2037. The investor, Warren Buffett, who rarely makes a wrong move, has increased his stakes in the sector.

Technology has become a force for creative destruction in global aviation. A new generation of hybrid supersonic planes are being designed to take over from the defunct Anglo-French Concorde. Tesla, the company owned by the entrepreneurial genius, Elon Musk, has recently tested a new electric aircraft. Unmanned Aircraft Systems are on the cards. The ICT revolution and blockchain offer capacity to deploy Big Data to enhance efficiencies and safety. According to IATA, from 2035 there will be “revolutionary” new aircraft, propulsion systems, strut-braced wings, hybrid and battery-electric aircraft.

The first commercial flight into Nigeria arrived Kano 95 years ago, on November 1, 1925. Today, there are 32  airports and several private airstrips in Nigeria. There are five international  airports (Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt and Enugu) and five others which are state-owned (Asaba, Uyo, Gombe, Dutse and Jalingo). Several more are being planned. Lagos is our principal aviation hub (others being Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano). There are 23 active domestic airlines. We also have 554 licensed pilots, 913 engineers and 1,700 cabin personnel. The sector accounts for nearly 200,000 jobs.

Our air transport market tripled in size between 2004 and 2007, thanks to the macroeconomic and institutional reforms of the Obasanjo years. Today, passenger traffic averages over 12 million annually, second only to South Africa on the continent; contributing 4% to national GDP.

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In fairness, the current administration has done a lot for aviation. Budgetary allocation for 2021 is N89.9 billion. There is a plan to double the number of airports from 31 to 62 by 2023. New major infrastructure projects are being planned for Anambra, Benue, Ekiti, Nasarawa, Ebonyi and Gombe, while existing airports such as Kebbi and Dutse are going to be refurbished. Recently, some quality infrastructures have successfully been implemented: the concessioning of MM2 in Lagos; the new wing at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja and the refurbishment of Enugu and Markudi airports. All well and good.

But there are challenges. Low capacity-utilisation;absence of a National Carrier; poormaintenance of culture; absence of multimodal connectivity; absence of Maintenance, Repair & Overhaul, MRO, facilities; poor inter-agency coordination and a weak regulatory regime. But critical challenges remain. Investors are discouraged by the legal altercations which accompanied the concessioning of MM2. More thinking is needed in crafting the business model for a new national carrier. The delay in concessioning the other airports is leading to greater uncertainty. Training and capacity remain big challenges for the sector, including weak administrative capacity and collusive rent-seeking behaviour.

The 2014 National Integrated Infrastructure Master Plan, NIMP, emphasizes transportation and estimates US$3 trillion as the funds needed to bridge the infrastructure gap over the next 30 years. Transport and aviation remain crucial components of that blueprint.

As we look forward to rolling out a new generation of aviation infrastructure projects, we must take on board the lessons of global practices. As far as I know, the critical success factors for aviation infrastructure delivery include the following: good project definition and a sound business case; appropriate choice of project strategy; strong stakeholder and higher managementsupport; availability of sufficient funds/other resources; firm control of changes to the authorised project; application of a design-build project delivery methodology that focuses on contractual obligations and accountability for results; streamlining procurement processes, including use of e-procurement; commitment to sustainability in terms of   “green issues” as well as economic considerations, CSR, ethics, diversity and inclusion; and consideration for safety standards for workers and for operational safety in airports.

There is also a necessity for us to evolve a vibrant military-industrial complex for the aviation and aerospace sector. Above all, we must think outside the box. We can learn from the American approach where Congress recently launched a public-private sector initiative for the Next Generation of Air Transportation Systems, NGATS: a programme intended to drive innovation and modernisation in the U.S. aviation industry. The project is managed by the Joint Planning and Development Office, JPDO, headed by the Transport Secretary; bringing together the private sector, FAA, NASA and the Departments of Commerce, Defence and Homeland Security.

The future is bright for Nigerian aviation. The sector has the potentials to contribute up to 10% to national GDP and to become a key employer of labour. Further reforms and expanding quality infrastructures are key to further unlocking the sector. Benchmarking against emerging market players such as Ethiopia, Singapore, UAE and Qatar would help.

I propose creation of a Joint Aviation Strategic Initiative, JASI: a private-public sector platform to be chaired by the Honourable Minister of Aviation. Its role would be to think outside the box and to help drive the sector in our 21st century. JASI should draw up a 30-year Strategic Plan forNext Generation transformation of our aviation sector.

Addressing the following questions is critical: (1) What kind of aviation infrastructures would we need to meet the needs of an expanded population of 410 million by 2050?   (2) How can we upscale our aviation sector to be at par with the best in the new emerging economies? (3) What would it take to build an airplane assembly plant and to start manufacturing key components in the aviation value chain? (4)   What would it take for us become Africa’s premier aviation hub? (5) How can we tap into new digital technologies to enhance our aviation capabilities? (7) What are the requirements for integrating defence, security, safety and communication tools to build a robust and world-class aviation infrastructure? (7) And how can we deploy the military-industrial complex to ensure self-sufficiency in aviation and aerospace technology?

The famous French aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, once remarked: “I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things.” Aviation is one of those sectors that separates petty nations from great ones. Our destiny is to be a great nation. Reaching that ideal requires mastery of the skies. It will require all the genius and creativity that we can muster. To quote Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it is done!”

*Being text of a lecture delivered to a Retreat for the Federal Ministry of Aviation and its Agencies, organised by the Savannah Centre, at Ibom Hotel and Resort, Uyo, February 8-11, 2021.

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