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By Emeka Alex Duru
History beckons on Saturday, August 24, as the international status of Akanu Ibiam Airport, Enugu, formally takes shape. That day, Africa’s major carrier, Ethiopian Airlines will kick off its inaugural flight from Enugu to Addis Ababa, Ethiopian capital.
That would mark the first international flight operation from the Airport since it was designated the only international airport in the South East zone by the Federal Government.
Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah, has in apparent confirmation of the development, written to President Goodluck Jonathan, informing him about the historical flight which will arrive the Enugu airport by 12.30 pm and depart by1:30 pm local time in the four-time weekly operation.
Our reporter learnt that the inaugural flight is already evoking excitement among air travellers and major opinion moulders in the East. This, is not without reason. Dredging River Niger and making Akanu Ibiam a functional International Airport, are among the demands the indigenes of the south East have been making from successive administrations in the country without commensurate results.
Incidentally, politicians canvassing for votes from the zone, had regularly made pledges of attending to these demands during campaigns without actually fulfilling the promises on assumption to office.
Thus, even as the President commissioned the remodeled Airport’s Terminal and its facilities on May 18, 2013, there still remained a great deal of apprehension among the people that its international status may not be actualised after all.
The President had rightly argued that the South East Zone, as an industrial and business hub needs the requisite aviation infrastructure to function, adding that no serious business region all over the world would overlook the imperativeness of air travel. But then, the pessimism on international flights landing and taking off from the airport lingered, apparently on account of failed promises in the past.
But with the Saturday date appearing certain, there has been a regime of ululation among the people. Oscar Onwudiwe, a seasoned Lawyer and vice chairman of Aka Ikenga, an intellectual platform of Igbo elite, has described the commencement of the flight operations as “one of the best things that could happen to Nigeria, not just Ndigbo”, stressing that the feat is overdue.
In his analysis, the Igbo, are the most mobile people among Nigerians on an entire year basis. This, he said, is on account of the expressive and expansive nature of the people. “The people (Igbo) are spread all over the world. The Ethiopian Airlines being the best in Africa, must have done their home work and must have found the route potentially lucrative. The airline will certainly give the other airlines a run for their money”, he enthused.
Emma Ogbuehi, an importer, added that the initiative would be the best gift the Jonathan administration would be giving to businessmen from the region. “My brother”, he said, “I do not want to make much comment until I see the thing (inaugural flight) coming through. If it happens, that would be the best gift the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan would be giving to the East. For long, we have been suffering, trying to make our international flights from other zones. But with the Akanu Ibiam International Airport coming on stream, we do not need to do those things. It would save us a lot of cost”.
Pat Nwabunnia, a public opinion analyst agrees, stressing that with the new deal, travellers from the east would have a choice. “It would no longer be as in the past where one had to go through Port Harcourt, Lagos or Abuja with the attendant uncertainties. It would now be a matter of one choosing to travel from Enugu or any other airport and at his convenience”, he said, adding that with the new development, employment windows would be opened for more Nigerians.
It is estimated that the operation of Ethiopian Airlines into Enugu would to a reasonable extent address the call from the people of the South East who have for many years clamoured for an international airport for the zone, which they believe will reinforce the resourcefulness of the people, who are known for their entrepreneurship and trade.
Many agree that with the accomplishment of the feat, businessmen and other travellers from Enugu, Aba, Abakaliki, Onitsha, Owerri, Umuahia and as far as Asaba and Benin will be saved the distress of travelling for hours to Lagos and Abuja to catch international flights, trips that are sometimes fraught with problems, including dangers on the road as they fight for time to catch their flights to international destinations.
Many of the passengers have lost their goods on transit as they convey them from these cities to their final destinations on their arrival from their overseas trips.
General Manager, Corporate Communication, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) Yakubu Dati, stressed that with the Akanu Ibiam International Airport effectively taking off, Jonathan administration has fulfilled his promise of giving every part of the country equal opportunity to develop and realise its dreams, recalling that few months ago the President unveiled the domestic terminal at the airport and also laid foundation for the building of international terminal, which work is in progress.
He also saw in it a demonstration of the aviation minister’s commitment in the realisation of Jonathan’s transformation agenda. “The Minister of Aviation has shown her determination to actualise the goals of the aviation master plan which the Jonathan administration has pegged its transformation agenda which objectives include giving every part of the country and every citizen the opportunity to grow to his full potential. 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”, he said.
Experts count the commencement of flight from and to the airport among the giant strides of the minister. Incidentally, when she was appointed and assigned aviation portfolio, the initial reaction by critics was that she lacked the capacity to reposition the sector that had virtually been lying comatose. The doubt was not on her person, per se but essentially because the waning confidence Nigerians had had on the aviation sector had dipped further especially following obvious discrepancies in the sector that had on occasions seen analysts referring to airplanes in the country as mere flying coffins.
The Minister, apparently conscious of the pessimism trailing the ministry declared that her focus of would be to reposition the industry as a major contributor to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
She made the declaration before the Senate Committee on Aviation while presenting her Roadmap for Aviation Industry. The Roadmap provided the institutional framework for the provision of infrastructure, monitoring and control of the industry.
The Minister recognised that government alone cannot fund the infrastructure deficit in the sector, hence she suggested efforts to improve the revenue generation capacities of all the agencies under the Ministry.
Her projection was that from 2012, the Ministry should be able to contribute about 30 per cent of all its Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) to the Federation Account, stressing that revenue enhancement is at the heart of the reform and transformation of the sector.
Since the Minister’s presentation, visible efforts have been made in repackaging the nation’s airports. At the Murtala Muhammed Airport Lagos, for instance, apart from the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) which has witnessed huge infrastructure uplift, work is also going on at the international wing. Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport Owerri Terminal and the Yola Airport Terminal, are also among the other airports being rehabilitated. At the last count, the ministry is said to be remodelling all 22 current terminals in FAAN network. These are aside the aerotropolis project in some of the terminals.