How air travellers suffer from West Africa’s poor connectivity | Dailytrust

How air travellers suffer from West Africa’s poor connectivity

West Africa is poorly connected when it comes to travelling by air, investigation by Daily Trust has revealed. Sometimes it takes up to 12...

Murtala Muhammed International Airport, MMIA Lagos
Murtala Muhammed International Airport, MMIA Lagos

West Africa is poorly connected when it comes to travelling by air, investigation by Daily Trust has revealed.

Sometimes it takes up to 12 hours to reach a destination that should last for an hour because travellers would be taken to many countries in the name of connecting flights.

Experts in the aviation sector said North and South Africa had left West Africa behind in terms of efficient air transportation and called for a new approach in order to tap from the huge economic potentials available.

They also advised Nigeria to take the lead, saying it could be an alternative to oil revenue if properly harnessed alongside tourism and other economic activities.

Daily Trust recalls that in October 2018, a Nigerian airline, Overland Airways, commenced a direct flight from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos to Niamey, Niger Republic amidst excitement from Nigerian and Nigerien business communities, who anticipated a partial blockade of the wide air connectivity gap in the West African sub-region.

From Lagos to Niamey, the direct flight time was about 1 hour, 53 minutes. For many air travellers on that route, it was a big relief and reprieve from the hassle of connecting flights, which they were used to.

However, it was not long before the flight operation was stopped and no reason was offered by Overland at that time.

Senator Hadi Sirika, Aviation Minister

Senator Hadi Sirika, Aviation Minister

 

Daily Trust reports that the decision to suspend the operation temporarily was not unconnected with the depletion of the airline’s fleet when one of its aircraft caught fire at its hangar in Lagos airport the same month.

Since then, the direct flight option to Niamey from Nigeria stopped abruptly and travellers were left stranded.

For years, West African countries, comprising Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote D’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo, have remained isolated in terms of air connectivity, thereby hampering business activities within the sub-region.

While stakeholders argue that the entire African continent has the same challenge of air connectivity, checks show that it is worse in West African countries, considered as next door neighbours.

Out of the 16 countries in the West Coast, only very few are connected by direct flights. To link some countries, as findings by our correspondent showed, it could take 24 hours for a journey of less than two hours by flight.

Apart from Ghana to Nigeria with direct flight, either from Lagos or Abuja, other neighbouring countries cannot be easily accessed. Also, with the Togolese carrier, Asky, there is also a direct flight to Lome, which takes about 50 minutes while Air Peace also connects Banjul, the Gambia; Freetown, Sierra Leone only on Sundays; Dakar, Senegal on Fridays and Mondays and Douala, Cameroun on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Also, checks by our correspondent indicate that a flight from Lagos to Cotonou on Asky costs as much as N354, 515 for one-way. This would have been about a 30- minute flight from the MMIA on a direct connection. But with N354, 515, it is higher and costlier than the cost of a Lagos-London flight on RwandAir, which is less than N300,000.

A travel agent who spoke with our correspondent on the condition of anonymity said connecting through the West Coast is not only expensive but strenuous.

For instance, he said that direct flight from Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos to Aeroport International Diori Hamani, Niamey (Niamey International Airport) is less than two hours but in the absence of a direct flight to Niamey, the only option is connecting flights which could take a whole day.

A passenger recently told Daily Trust how he spent 12 hours just to connect Niamey in Niger, describing the experience as traumatic. 

The passenger, who narrated his ordeal to our correspondent, said he was going for a conference in Niamey from Abuja, only to be taken to four countries within the West Coast, just to connect Niamey.

He said, “I was supposed to have a conference in Niamey, Niger, which is part of West Africa, a close door neighbour to Nigeria. If you live maybe in Katsina or Kano, it is just normal for you to enter Niger and come back by road. 

“But if you are to go to Niger by air, I’ll just summarise it as traumatic because it will take you not less than 12 hours to get to Niamey, which is the capital city.

“When my tour consultant sent their itinerary, I realised that from Abuja, I would have to go to Ghana first through the African World Airlines (AWA). I followed that from the Abuja airport to Ghana. I waited in Ghana for like an hour or two, then joined Asky, which took me from the Kotoka International Airport to Lome in Togo. Then I waited in Lome for like an hour or thereabouts, then we took off and went to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. We landed there and did not disembark but waited for like an hour.

“From there we took off and landed at Niamey. So the journey started at 7:00 am and ended at 7 pm, that’s 12 hours.  If you were to travel from Abuja straight to Niamey, it is about 1 hour, 30 minutes, but it took us 12 hours.

“It was very sad. I was visibly shocked. I was discussing with a friend who said I shouldn’t have wasted my time. He said I should have travelled to Katsina from Abuja, and from there go through Jibia and find your way to Niamey.”

He continued, “That was not the only experience.  The same year, I had another engagement in Yaoundé, Cameroon, but there was no direct flight from Abuja. They told us that Asky normally went there but it was fully booked, or something like that. So the other option was for me to fly from Abuja to Addis Ababa and spend the night there. In the morning we didn’t go straight to Yaoundé. We went to Cape Verde. We landed and I stayed there for like an hour, then took off before we landed in Yaoundé.  That trip took me 24 hours.

“The summary of my experience is that West Africa is the worst connected in the world. I don’t know what happens in other places, but this region is the worst connected when you compare with North Africa and South Africa.”

He advised that that as Nigeria plans to float a national carrier, efforts must be made towards opening up the West Coast. 

The Minister of Aviation Senator Hadi Sirika had said that Nigeria’s national carrier would come on board this year, but there are fears that it might not materialise considering that there is nothing on ground yet.

Another constant traveller said Nigeria would gain a lot by floating a national carrier.

“Nigeria should take advantage of the population in Africa and float a serious airline. It is enough to substitute oil for Nigeria, and it will provide job opportunities more than what the oil sector is providing when you look at the number of people that will work there.

“Even if you have hundreds of airlines, they will be busy, and more people would be employed. We shouldn’t be extremely ambitious that we must go to US and UK,” he said.

With over 400 million of the 1.4 billion population of Africa, stakeholders say the ground is fertile enough for airlines to latch on, develop each of the routes and build the economies of the sub-region.

The president of the Association of African Start-ups (TAAS), Just Ibe, said Africa was a big market that must be connected to improve businesses in the continent and the sub-region. 

But she would want the various bottlenecks to travels removed for Africa to realise its potentials. 

She said, “The reason it is difficult for us to access all the countries within the continent by air is because there isn’t enough carriers to these destinations and largely because they don’t think it is profitable. They don’t think the conditions are favourable to do business, so while we address the challenges, it is important to speak to business owners to say, ‘You may have had challenges but this is the time to decide that you are going to pull down every barrier because Africa is ours and it’s ours to build. If we don’t do it, nobody will, if we don’t challenge the status quo, nobody will do that. And as long as you have economic power and you are willing to partner with the political power, you would be able to make a difference and that time really is now.’

“Finally, we want to encourage a lot more of Africans to begin to look at Africa as a place to do business. Physical, socio-economic and cultural challenges may exist, but nothing great comes out easy.”

An airline operator who spoke with our correspondent on the condition of anonymity, said, “Asky is about the airline going to all these countries as connecting flights, which would be very expensive because it is a national carrier of another country. It has to operate connecting flights to all those countries because it was not given a right to convey passengers directly from Nigeria because it is not a national airline of Nigeria.”

The director of research and corporate travels at Zenith Travels, Mr Olumide Ohunayo, in a chat with Daily Trust on Sunday, noted that the poor transport linkage among ECOWAS countries had hampered businesses within the region. 

“The poor air transport linkage among ECOWAS countries has led to the poor business development within the region. It has almost killed and paralysed air traffic movement within the region due to poor air connection and frequencies.

“I think we are still suffering from the Francophone and Anglophone leanings that most members are.

“ECOWAS has been more of a talk show than a body trying to come out with cohesion.

“I think the only time I see them united is when they have an issue of democracy. Outside that, I have not seen that cohesion to bring the region together.

“Each country takes policies that protect its own. That is the reason Nigeria could unilaterally close its borders because Benin Republic and others were allowing foreign countries to come to their countries and now push them into Nigeria without paying taxes.

“For the flight, it is painful that when you are going to a country like Liberia you probably spend almost a day before getting there for a flight that should be about three hours,” he said.

He said the situation had been there for decades, and called for the opening up of alternative means of transportation like rail and road, while calling for the dismantling of borders in West Coast to facilitate free movement. 

“I think what we should do is to open other alternative means of transportation like rail and road so that businesses can kick-start. In doing that you have to remove those bottlenecks from the borders. Our borders are littered with so many security personnel, which make it very difficult for people to enter.

“The ECOWAS body needs to be ahead of its game by improving facilitation, documentation, immigration, reducing all the barriers in the borders. I think air transport will follow. We must also be able to generate a common currency and passport; that alone would break the bottlenecks and increase interchange and travels within the region,” he added.

An aviation analyst, Mr Isiaq Na’Allah, said that for the West Coast routes to be developed, airlines must be ready to make sacrifice to build the individual routes from the start.

According to him, there are passengers willing to travel by air, but they are disappointed because of the connectivity gap.

He recalled that when the Med-View Airline opened up most of West Coast routes, the flights were always full with passengers on the Lagos-Freetown, Lagos-Libreville routes.

“There are passengers but no airline is ready to sacrifice to build that connection. Med-View used to do Lagos-Freetown, Douala and Libreville and the flights were always full. You need to take your time and maintain your schedule. People are not ready to take the initial risk. If we can get small equipment (aircraft) where the cost of operation is not high, those are the best to start any new route. We don’t have Nigerian carriers doing that at the moment,” he said.

Creating a hub in West Africa

Experts say that Nigeria, with over 200million people, is well positioned to be a hub in West Africa, if not Africa as a whole, with a strong national carrier. 

The target, according to analysts, would be first of all to establish connectivity in the 16 West Coast countries and expand from there. For instance, taking a cue from Ethiopian Airlines, the largest airline in Africa, popularly known as Ethiopian, it has established a hub around the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, where it serves over 125 destinations, including 20 domestic routes. As at today, that airline is synonymous to Ethiopia, just like the Emirates Airlines is synonymous with the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Ethiopian Airlines now has a conglomerate comprising Ethiopian Airlines Academy, Ethiopian Maintenance Organisation, the Skylight Hotel, among others, with employees of about 15,000.

The Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, for instance, is a natural hub for the West Coast with a strong airline. Given the new terminal, which is almost completed, an airline can create a hub around Nigeria and open up not just the West Coast but the underserved African continent.

Stakeholders say with a strong flag carrier with maintenance support, it has a far-reaching effect on the entire aviation value chain, providing opportunities for in-flight service providers, the travel agents, the aviation fuel suppliers, among others.   

Speaking with our correspondent, a former president of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Isaac Balami said Nigeria had the comparative advantage to be a hub, not only in West Africa but the entire continent. 

He said, “Everything is to our advantage. We can be a hub, not only in West Africa but even in Africa. First of all, no country in Africa travels like Nigeria. If you look at the global map and the map of Africa and where Nigeria is located, the distance from Nigeria to the Middle East, Europe, South Africa, East Africa, it is about six hours. We are at the centre. So if there is any hub, it is actually Nigeria.

“The only thing is that we need to get it right by having a national carrier that can compete with Emirates or Ethiopian Airlines, Egypt Air, Kenya. It is just a matter of getting it right and I believe that we are almost getting there.” 

As far as the West Coast is concerned, he stated that Air Peace had tried by opening up most of the West Coast countries, but there is the need for further expansion.

“We need to expand, but expanding at what cost? Where is the support? When Emirates was flying to Nigeria, they were buying aviation fuel at 10 to 15 cents, and Arik was buying fuel at $1 flying into Dubai, how will they compete? This is a country that understands the importance of empowering their airlines,” he said. 

The President of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), Mrs Susan Akporiaye, said Nigeria and Africa needed to put their acts together and look inwards instead of looking outside for travels and tourism.

She said, “To me, we need to start taking some things seriously in our own country; and of course, Africa too should wake up because the problem is always from outside Africa. 

“Africa needs to sit down and say enough of this thing, let’s look inwards. 

“We should be serious about AfCTA agenda. Let’s push it. Let’s start doing business among ourselves. What is it that people go to Dubai for? Can’t we get it somewhere else in Africa? If we can, let’s think about it. What is the big deal?

“We need to start looking inwards and start talking. Connectivity is part of it. When I said that Africa needs to wake up, connectivity is part of what I am talking about because we cannot move around if there is no proper connection for you to move around.”

As part of efforts to drive tourism in Nigeria, the organiser of Akwaaba Travel Market, Mr Ikechi Uko, recently unveiled the seven wonders of Nigeria out of 35 shortlisted tourism attractions, with a view to encouraging travels and tourism within Nigeria, the West Coast and Africa. But to experts, without increased connectivity and free movement, the West Coast and Africa would remain under-linked.

Dear Reader,
Every day, we work hard to provide readers such as you with the most accurate, up-to-date, and comprehensive information. Quality journalism costs money. Today, we're asking that you support us to do more. Your support means that Daily Trust can keep offering journalism to everyone in the world. Sign up for as little as N1,000 to become a member. Learn more about our membership here

Bank transfers can be made to:
Zenith Bank
1017257739
Media Trust Ltd


Please send details of your bank transfer to the email or Whatsapp number below so that we can contact you.

If you have any questions, please let us know.

Inquiries:
Email: membership@dailytrust.com
Whatsapp: +234 806 990 3410