by ‘Nonye Obi-Egbe
Twenty-fourth August 2013 – the date, 1:30 pm – the time, Ethiopian Airlines will make the inaugural flight from Akanu Ibiam International Airport to Addis Ababa. It’s downright exciting, this internationalisation of the Enugu airport; it means many things to many people.
To those booked to fly out that day, it’s an experience, to the Enugu people, it spells better days, to the people of the South East, it’s an achievement. Since the majority of trade travellers come from South East Nigeria, it also means proximity and ease of travel. Like the General Manager, Corporate Communication, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, Yakubu Dati said recently, “with the international flight operations at the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, a novel opportunity has been given to the people of the South East zone to expand their business horizon without stress and the inconveniences of having to travel far to catch international flights.”
Interestingly, the government of Enugu State has made some calculated improvement efforts in readiness for the internationality of the airport. We must applaud Sullivan Chime’s efforts to resurface many Enugu city roads like those from Emene through Thinkers’ Corner, and his foresight with the creation of new access roads to provide more options for road users. He has also wiped out the unsightly former semi-permanent home of tankers along the NNPC Mega Station road on Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway. In addition, he has expanded the Enugu-Abakaliki main highway to a dual carriageway in anticipation of likely increased traffic from that axis.
Yet, while we celebrate, we must remember to ask the question, is the airport ready for the throng of people knocking on its door? Is it ready for East Africa, not to mention the world? Many say that the airport has been remodelled to international standards, and it is not yet clear exactly what that means. Still, the physical appearance of the airport really isn’t the problem, the infrastructure seems to be in order; it’s what goes on inside the airport that should be a cause for worry.
First, the arrivals process is not as organised as one would hope. Hitherto, what happens is, a flight lands and the stairs are rolled forward for disembarking passengers. Since the tarmac isn’t that large anyway, everyone then troops into the arrivals area, to the baggage carousel, to wait for and collect their bags. From here they walk out into a larger hallway that doubles as a waiting area and internal thoroughfare, then out to the exit and parking lot. There are no real signs to point the way; most people just move with the flow, after all, they say that when you don’t know what to do, copy what the man in front of you is doing.
Second, for travellers taking off from the airport, the process of getting a boarding pass and checking-in can best be described as a nightmare. It’s bad enough when you come really early, it’s absolutely dreadful when you have barely one hour before boarding. And should you come late on a day when the ‘network’ is slow, then you are done for. There is no order to anything; not to the lines you should stand in, not even to the areas where you should (or shouldn’t) keep your bags, or even to baggage screening for checked-in luggage. The whole entrance area doubles as lounge, baggage checking area, airline desks spots, etc. It is quite possible that in the confusion, someone with questionable luggage contents can walk into the entrance area, past the baggage checkers, and get through check-in. It is quite possible.
Third, on the good fortune that you have gone through check-in without incident and have moved on to the departures lounge, the inefficiency of the officials there can just tire you out, literally. It’s almost like everyone’s in slow motion and no one sees any need to hurry. Sometimes, the line of people waiting to get into the departures lounge stretches on, still, no one considers it a problem – not even when the line obstructs passage for other people.
In all, Enugu State, for the most part is ready, the airport is almost ready, but the airport officials are in a state of inertia. The opening up of the South East is a laudable feat, no doubt it creates better opportunities for Nigerians, but it may not last if the airport officials are left to their own devices. It’s no fault of the President, the Minister isn’t to blame, and the Governor is doing his part; at fault is the inherent slow pace of life and the inexperience of officials in this particular airport. It is not enough to own a uniform or to have done the job for 10 years; no one does something the same way all the time and expects a different result. Bottom line, EVERYONE at that airport desperately needs training, and it is more important now.
It is downright a personal matter since close family are slated to travel on the inaugural flight. If chaos was the order of the day when there were only two flights per day, taking off and arriving at the airport, what happens now that we add an international throng every two days or so? Someone with experience has to show them what it means to run an airport efficiently; they need to be injected with zeal and the eagerness to excel. If this doesn’t happen quickly, travellers will soon decide that the desire for stress-free procedures at Lagos and Abuja trump the need for proximity in international flights from Enugu.