Africa: Airlines’ role in developing airport hubs

Nigerian airlines sirika airports

What qualifies an airport as an effective hub? Experts say it is beyond geographical location, population, operational infrastructure and the size of terminal facilities. The role strong carriers can play in achieving a hub for Nigeria has triggered a debate in the sector. KELVIN OSA OKUNBOR reports.

Nigeria’s desire to achieve hub status for some of its airports in the last few decades has remained elusive.

The drive to upgrade some of its airport terminals to hub status has engaged the attention of successive administrations with little to show for it beyond rhetorics. Terminal upgrade and remodeling initiatives conceived by many ministers of aviation are yet to yield the expected outcomes.

But, the country is losing billions of dollars in the West African region and on the continent due to the failure of the government to deliver on its target.

Experts, including Chief Executive Officer Belujane Konsults, Mr Chris Aligbe ; Chief Executive Officer, African Aviation Services Limited , Mr Nick Fadugba ; Chairman and Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Captain Meggison said hub pursuit for Nigeria may take longer time until strong carriers are put in place.

Beside strong carriers, they said government needs deliver modern airports with transit facilities for passengers to connect flight from one corner of the world to another.

They said Nigeria will be better positioned to achieve hub status for its airport terminals if it takes advantage of its geographical location, population and other attractions.

Besides geography, they say establishing strong carriers have a role to play in the development of effective airport hubs. They argue that such carriers should not be necessarily publicly owned, but could be private sector-driven, judging by the experience in other climes.

Aligbe on his part identified the absence of strong indigenous carriers as one of the reasons Nigeria is unable to develop airport hubs. He said though Nigeria is naturally blessed with good geographical location, it is not enough to make her airports natural hubs as hub development goes beyond geography encompassing strong carriers to distribute passengers.
He said other countries in Africa were using their carriers to develop their airport into strong hubs for the distribution of passengers on the airline network they belong to.

Aligbe said until the government designed policies that would promote strong indigenous carriers, the ambition to develop some international airports into a hub will remain a mirage.

In an interview, Aligbe said in some parts of the world, some private carriers assisted in developing their airports into strong hubs.
He said: “We cannot develop hub in our country. If you look at it globally it is only two major places that private airlines have developed as hub.
“You have it in Honk Kong, developed by Cathay Pacific, the airline was owned by a shipping magnate, but now it is a global airline.

‘’There is another airline that developed a hub in Brazil after the collapse of Varig Air. So, airlines have a role to play in developing airport hubs. Other hubs were developed by national carriers. Even though most American carriers are privately owned.’’

He further said:” Only national carriers build hubs. That is why Nigeria has not been able to build hubs. Four or five years ago, there was an arrangement with Lufthansa to help build a hub in Abuja, but it did not happen. It will not happen, no foreign airlines will build hub for Nigeria. KLM built a hub in Schipol, Air France built Paris Airport, British Airways built Heathrow, not Virgin.

“Nigeria is the best location in Africa to build a hub, yet we have not developed it.

“The kind of multiplier effect a hub has in economic development in any country is mammoth. Such hubs as Dubai, Heathrow, France, Atlanta, do wonderful things. Delta Airlines has done a lot to develop hubs and contribute to the development of the economy.

“We are not in a position to develop that now, because we do not have a strong national flag carrier that can do this,” Aligbe concluded.
Meggison in his view said airlines have a huge role to play in developing hubs.

He cited the roles Ethiopian Airlines has played in making Addis Ababa a strong hub in the Horn of Africa region, distributing passengers from all parts of the continent onto its global routes network, using its many global alliances.

He said Kenyan Airways has also assisted in developing Nairobi into a strong hub for East Africa to distribute passengers around the continent.

Egypt Air, he said, has developed a hub around Cairo just as South African Airways has also developed a hub for Johannesburg to distribute passengers around the southern part of the continent. He said any country needed more than mere geographical advantage to become a hub.

He said: “But a country needs more than the advantage of geographical location to become a hub.

“Now, if you take advantages into account, Nigeria ought to be a hub. But then what really determines a hub is the quality and the capacity of the major carrier in that country.

“It is not the population; it is not even the strategic location as it were. KLM is from Netherlands. How many people are in Netherlands? How many of the KLM passengers are going to Netherlands? But because the country has a very big carrier that has wide network, the airline has made Amsterdam a hub.”

He said Nigeria could become a hub if it has strong airlines that could distribute passengers from Europe, Americas, Asia and other destination outside the continent to various parts of Africa.

“Nigeria can become a hub if it has two or three airlines that are very strong. Even if one is not strong enough, but an airline that can create a feeder network for passengers to different parts of the continent.
“Ethiopia is not strategically located as it were, but because they have a very strong carrier, Addis Ababa has become a hub. So, it is the airline or the airlines that make a hub. For Lagos to become a hub, besides the facilities that will enable it to become a hub, like good airport, modern transportation facilities, the airline must be big enough to have network of routes and feed other airlines.”

Despite its huge population, Fadugba said Nigeria lacks terminals that can accelerate seamless transit for passengers on domestic; regional and international flights.

He said besides facilities for passengers’ transit; Nigerian carriers are not strong enough to attract global partnership to offer passengers reliable services on routes beyond point-to-point.

Being a point -to -point carrier, Fadugba said is no longer fashionable among global carriers.

Speaking in an interview in Lagos, Fadugba said the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja were yet to qualify as hubs for West Africa because they do not command the kind of facilities that would attract global carriers as transit terminals to connect passengers to any where in the world.

Fadugba said global carriers are attracted to airports with modern facilities where turn around time is swift; services are reliable; airlines could refuel and enjoy economies of scale.

He said the weak status of many Nigerian carriers with limited aircraft fleet; unreliable schedules and lack of capacity to share interline and codeshare agreements with global carriers continue to undermine the drive for hub status for its airports.

Fadugba said airports in Accra, Cairo, Casablanca, Dakar, Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Johannesburg have developed modern infrastructure and processes to attract global legacy carriers with intimidating aircraft fleet and network; Nigerian airports needed to be reworked to accommodate attractive hub facilities.

He said: “Nigerian airports still have a long way to go to become significant hubs in Africa ; because they have inadequate facilities that will facilitate seamless passengers’ transit.

“Government needs to tear down and build a modern terminal at Lagos Airport with at least three runways that will facilitate seamless connectivity.

“Government needs to urgently look at land facilities at the Abuja Airport and at least build two runways for easy connectivity.

“Developing an airport hub is not by accident but through careful planning and strategy. To achieve this government should look at airport size, and the readiness of the airspace to accommodate the exponential traffic that it will trigger if modern facilities are put in place.

“This is what other countries have done by empowering their airlines; modernising their fleet; securing operational agreements and partnership to position them as catalyst for economic development.”

He said: “And we do not have any airline to cut on, put together all the airlines we have if we tell them to come together to form one airline , they are still not large enough to contend with South African Airways, Kenya Airways or Ethiopian Airlines.

“We cannot develop hub in our country. If you look at it globally only two major places that private airlines have developed as hub.Even though most American carriers are privately owned.Look at all the hubs built globally, they were built by national carriers. Only national carriers build hubs.

“That is why Nigeria has not been able to build one. Because of economies of scale for airlines in terms of fuel costs, insurance and other benefits for airlines that belong to network globally.

“These are the things we are not benefitting. Aircraft utilisation in Nigeria is low, at least six hours as opposed to 12 hours.”

Meanwhile, remodelling of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, is aimed at making it the preferred West African hub that would attract more international flights, President of new aviation think tank Stakeholders Square Table, Captain Balarabe Usman (rtd.) has said.

Usman said when work is completed at the airport, it would meet all the necessary conditions for its certification by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and would be designated as a regional hub because the highest number of passengers in West and Central Africa still emanate from the Lagos airport.

According to him, with the expansion of the terminal facility, installation of new conveyor belts for quick dispensation of baggage, upgrading of the cooling system and overall rehabilitation of the infrastructure at the terminal would entirely improve and hasten facilitation and attract more airlines into the country.

Speaking in an interview, President and Chief Executive Officer, Sabre Travel Network, Gbenga Olowo said government could create deliberate policy to support aviation activities including airlines, airports, catering, fuel and ground handling services.

He said: “Nigeria ought to be a hub with its geographical location in West, Central Africa with its large population.

“Lagos could be a formidable hub in West Africa if it has facilities that guarantees a functional airport with transit facilities , provision for aircraft leasing , aircraft maintenance repair and overhaul facility , an aerotropolis and other supporting amenities built around flag carriers or a national carrier.

“One of the steps to achieving this is ensuring effective infrastructure management and development as well as improved air connectivity.”

by Kelvin Osa Okunbor

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