By Omoh Gabriel
Mr. George Uriesi, Managing Director of FAAN, had an interactive session with journalists in Lagos last week. During the session, he gave insight into what the authority is doing and plans for the future for the various airports in the country. He gave a little bit of context to the current conditions under which FAAN is operating, as well as the vision that is driving it.
What informs your drive toward expanding various facilities at the airports in the country?
The way you know that a country is becoming serious is by the way its airports are. Any country that is becoming serious will first of all get a sense of it from its airport. There are a lot of examples of countries that have started to become serious recently, not just in the world but particularly in Africa. When you look at the Mozambicans, when they became serious, they gave themselves a brand new airport. The Angolans are building theirs seriously in Rwanda, Ethiopia built a new terminal about 7-8 years ago making their airlines competitive. Lack of adequate airport was slowing Kenyan Airways and brought it down seriously and they invested in Kenyan airport in Nairobi. The Egyptians about five years ago built a network of fine airports. Cairo used to be a dirty airport before that. You should see the new look of Cairo Airport now, at least the newer part of it. In West Africa, Ghana has its own looking very nice, it’s very old but well kept and they are building a new terminal.
The Senegalese are investing seriously in a new terminal in Darka. Even a small country like Malawi, is building a new terminal. Zambians have finally broken from the colonial past and built a very beautiful terminal in Lusaka. It is only Nigeria that has been waiting. I speak my mind freely, I don’t know what we are waiting for, we will allow the express train to leave us behind, to the point that we now trying to play catch up, even that, is coming too late. It cannot be too late though, it has reached the stage where it is so shameful that Nigeria is playing catch up with even smaller African countries.
In all you have said, is everybody buying into this vision of change?
Some people are still considering themselves as obstacles against the inevitable progress that we have to make. I am sure most of you here do meetings and conferences outside Nigeria and do have international colleagues. I do not know how you feel when they visit and you have to receive them. You can imagine when I go out with my friends and they say ‘meet the Managing Director of FAAN instead of George, imagine how I, the director of FAAN feels. Who likes to become the managing director of a mess? I do not like it; I do not think there is any Nigerian who is angrier or more dissatisfied with the state of our airports than myself. And so we are in a hurry to make some significant changes to the way the airports are. Now the vehicle for this is FAAN and FAAN at some point, I must confess, lost focus. The reason why FAAN is here is the airports.
Is there no internal/external opposition to this drive?
I think at some point we get to become confused on why we are here. So I am trying to turn the attention of this animal to face what it is supposed to focus on. A lot of interest and people feel aggrieved and my message to them is to go dive into Atlantic Ocean and swim to Antarctica for all I care.
But we are going to get this organisation to focus on airports, because the people that have gotten their airports right around the world did not come from Mars, the nuisances are going around packaging all sorts of misinformation trying to distract and derail us from what we are going to do. I really want to set a tone in form of partnership with people as critical as you to set the record straight. I told the leader of Airport correspondents when I met them on Saturday that we cannot point fingers at FAAN and the management alone.
Outside of this deterioration that has come, you are just as culpable as we are, because it was under your watch that the airport deteriorated to this extent. I can go and bring out praise-singing articles that you people have been writing about the airport. No good reasons for such praises over the years, rather, the media ought to have criticized and hold accountable the organisation that is supposed to run the airports and express dissatisfaction over the state of the airports. We have allowed them to deteriorate to the extent that we all are in a state of national shameful disposition. I think that must stop.
The media should do its job and hold us accountable
I am asking you to hold me accountable personally and my team, and also to call yourself to account in culpability for allowing us to cause decay at the airports, the culpability is national, in power, in all forms of infrastructure. FAAN is not an island in Sweden or Canada but Nigeria. But all of us are culpable. I feel at some point we have to wake up from our slumber by taking some actions that are sensible and objective. So we are trying to do that now. I have received some criticism from some part of the media saying that ‘instead of doing a new airport, they are busy doing remodeling or upgrading, whatever they call it.’ The airport is long overdue for remodeling and needs new terminal etc.
You all know that a new terminal cannot just spring up, it has to be planned, go through due process, you build and commission it; if it’s a miracle, you can do it in 24 months. Since we are too late into this, we have to go into the current terminals, remodel and upgrade them and the philosophy behind it is to expand them because they are now all totally squashed as regards capacity.
How comfortable are you with the situation at Murtala Muhammed Airport?
If you are travelling out of Nigeria, Murtala Muhammed Airport experience is a bad one and you will end up having un-pleasurable experience. We want to intervene in that sad experience and create an environment that gives passengers respect and dignity while they use the airport, and provide services that will make them feel like yes, this is my country and it is beginning to get respect.
We are trying to do something that you have not seen before – make the airport an airport. Make it a comfortable environment, some people keep laughing but they will see.
We are not all animals in Nigeria, we can create islands of excellence and we will make everybody to see it. I know that is what we are going to do. It is hard but miraculously, we are going to get there. All I am asking our major stakeholders, the media, is objectivity. Know that when all these troublemakers come and give you these materials, at least cross check with us whether it is true or not. Try to help us to focus on turning the airports around. It has been bad for a long time but it seems like the whole world just woke up now saying that Murtala Muhammed Airport is bad. Now, we are trying to fix it. We are fighting but I am happy the work is going on in 11 airports across the country right now. It’s a very hard work. The organisation has not built an airport for a very long time. We are working a lot not just to manage but to simultaneously work and maintain safety in the airports and I cannot wait for them to finish. Our job is to work as fast as possible. In this context, for a few months, it is going to be pain but no pain, no gain. At the end of it, when we look back, we will be happy we took this drastic action in order to build.
There are some forms of work going on at the various airports, can you give an insight into this?
The modern airport business is a captive business module that says, ‘I have a platform that people must use, and it gives me an opportunity to provide arrays of services to this captive people.’ The captive people include those who are flying out and coming in. Well, it gets a lot bigger because there is no time in Murtala Muhammed Airport you won’t see many people. That’s a lot of people. They have expectations around the area. What the airport is designed for is multiple business, it is a catcher and then you build around it. With the infrastructure model we have now, it is not possible but we are working around it.
Now we are going to provide standard commercial business environment that is not there at the moment, we are not saying one cannot have a shop in the airport but must pass certain criteria. There is no more Mama and Papa put thing. In order for us to do this and do it properly, the government has to fund the current work going on at the airports. Nigerians have been insulted for too long. The government is funding the first phase of it and we are going to have a road show, an investment summit road show from three parts of the world but we are putting together the master plan. For Nigerian airports, we are looking for partners to come and invest and fund projects, logical projects.
This is an era we are looking for investors from other countries; I am prepared to give this my best shot. All I am trying to do is build with the money I am given.
Tell us what these obstacles are; maybe we can help you confront them.
The obstacles are not tangible; you just encounter them as you go along. I have to consider one thing, the ability to succeed for somebody in my position depends a lot on how the person is able to align all the influences around him in his favour. People underrate the job of FAAN MD seriously. It is a huge responsibility. It is not a plum job as people tend to think. It is a lot of work and I think slowly with the commitment of the Honourable Minister, I must say that what is happening is as a result of her insistence on taking that road map and running upstairs saying this must happen. I must tell you one thing; the President has come under pressure about the airport. This January, the President and his team went for a meeting with some foreign investors and he was told to get serious with his airport, that it’s a disgrace. The pressure has gone all the way up and I like it.
The second question is the concessionaires and concessions we have been having for a long time now. The fact is that they were impositions on FAAN. There has been pressure to interchange some transactions that were not in the interest of the organisation. So we have concessions that are skewed in the interest of the concessionaires, which is to the detriment of FAAN?
We are trying to turn a lot of corner obviously by extension, it is not in the public interest. This is a public organisation so it is not good enough to accept the fate of a company with concessions that are badly put into place from the past, so we are dismantling them. That is another side of the revolutionary thing we are doing now.
First, do we have the money to do it? I am not jack of all trade but I am a jack of my own trade. I need people that are experts in different areas to come and do it. We have become a lame duck that everybody ‘has seen finish,’ that is the best way to put it. I can guarantee you that you will hear more like the one that came out in the papers on Sunday, that I am a drug pusher, I am an armed robber, they will give you my history.
Do you have the resources to do what you have outlined?
First yes, we have the money to do it, the first phase costs about N16 billion for the 11 airports. The second phase will cost another approximately N16 billion, which we hope will be approved by the National Assembly in this current budget proposal. With that, we would have finished the first phase by the end of this year. And at the same time, I told you by April we will be going on our road show that will begin the discussion with potential investors etc. By early 2013, we want to be seeing new structures coming up in Port-Harcourt, Lagos and Abuja; new terminals being built either with the combination of government money and private money or purely on private money depending on how it goes. The organisation is full of talent so we have to develop it here. I want this organisation not to be the type that runs around to get certification. As soon as this budget is approved, we are going to build a headquarters.
Building new structure is not the problem but maintenance, what guarantee do you have that the structures will be adequately maintained?
In maintenance, that’s why the organisation has to change. Personally, I feel very strongly and I am going to de-emphasize classroom training for FAAN in the near future. Any two weeks training out there is better than any classroom. We have to change our practices, and we are even changing our culture. It has to be a modern airport structure that focuses on maintenance and engineering.
What about the link roads to the airport, are they FAAN’s responsibility, because they are also in bad shape?
The fact is that everywhere you look, over time, has deteriorated. It was clear to me from the beginning that you cannot fight several battles at the same time. A good example is the cargo area. I said let me pretend that area does not exist till April 2012 but early this year, the minister called me and asked me what I am doing about that area and I told her I am trying to look at it around April-May, she said no, there is no time for that, I should bring it to my agenda right away.
If you are talking about the roads to the airport, well let’s face the airport for now because we cannot do everything at the same time. I think it makes sense. I think I will make sure the street light is there and the signage. We will always try to do that but we will deal with all one after the other.