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Opinions of Sunday, 14 November 2021

Columnist: Chukwuemeka Fred Agbata Jnr

Improving Murtala Muhammed International Airport with technology

Chukwuemeka Fred Agbata Jnr. Chukwuemeka Fred Agbata Jnr.

It is often said that the state of any nation’s international airport is a major pointer to the general state of things in that particular country.

I dare say this is true when one considers the state of our very own premier airport. What a show of shame! I probably would not have written about the international airport but after watching the video made by Youtuber, Sabbatical, I decided it was important to write on the issue because his was the third or fourth video I had watched lately.

Before I proceed though, I would like to transcribe some parts of the video, just for the benefit of those who may not have seen it. I encourage you to go check out that video, it will both make you cry and laugh. What a pity!

Here’s an excerpt: “My friends, Nigeria is not for the faint-hearted. You know, I’ve been around the world and I’ve never seen an airport as insane as this one they have here in Lagos. And by that, I mean that it is extremely corrupt. The Nigerian airport, Lagos airport is the very definition of corruption that’ll pop up in the dictionary. Literally everywhere and everything is corrupt.

“You don’t want to wait on the line for your Covid test, pay this guy. You don’t want to have your bags checked, pay this guy. You want to cut the passport line, pay this guy. You want to bring a red bull past security, pay this guy. Want to get some crazy British Airways employee off your back, pay that guy.”

Listening to a foreigner visiting our country tell everyone to go to East Africa is simply just sad. I may not be able to completely express how I feel about this but it is an embarrassment to our collective intelligence and reputation as a people.

As we can see from this airport scenario, it’s certainly not a good feeling to know you’re being judged and your every move is suspect by people who regard all Nigerians as corrupt. However, the truth remains that Nigerian airports, especially the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, are a national disgrace.

I remember once upon a time when the Lagos-based airport was in a mess. The Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, took a tour of the airport and his body language alone proved to everyone that it was no longer business as usual. What did we notice afterwards? A more improved airport which although was lower than expected but things improved dramatically.

Unfortunately, we reside in a country where the best of intentions would always be made to look like a political or ethnic attack and so there was no follow-through and today the MMIA is in a worse shape.

I intend to discuss a few ways other countries have modernised their airports leveraging technology even though it sadly may fall on deaf ears. Be that as it may, I must state that even with the best of technology, there must be the political will to see the implementation of policies through.

Although I’m no adventurer who jets across the globe, I’ve seen my fair share of countries around the world. Apart from the orderliness, the state-of-the-art technology used in European airports, as well as those in the United States and Canada, are such that corruption, red-tapism, and redundancy cannot flourish.

The same cannot be said of Nigeria. While we know that an appalling number of airport officials are downright corrupt, the government needs not turn a blind eye to their misdemeanours. By investing in technology, the government can transform the airport with new and emerging digital tools to assist in every aspect of the passenger experience starting with booking a flight, retrieving itineraries, to uploading boarding passes. To a large extent, this will enhance the airport’s operational efficiency.

Blockchain technology, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and robotics are just a few of the existing technologies that can be harnessed to improve airport operations. And while we may not necessarily have got to a stage where robots are placed at terminals and checkpoints to attend to passengers, there are other tools that can be incorporated to ensure optimal performance of airport services.

Generally in Nigeria, government-controlled institutions, ministries, or agencies are often viewed with suspicion and ill-feeling. This is because many public officials accept bribes without batting an eyelid. In some MDAs, it’s part of an unspoken and unwritten agreement to grease the palm of officials if you want things done speedily.

Also infuriating is the rate at which exploitation is brazenly carried out in Nigerian airports. At a time when citizens especially the youth population are ready to give all it takes to flee the country, officials of airports are always in their element. So, in what practical ways can technology help to curb this ignominy? Let us consider the following:

The government needs to modernise the airport at least with Internet ready CCTV cameras installed all around the airport and ensure that they are properly monitored. This will effectively cripple any network of officials who extort passengers as every allegation can be matched with what is seen on the CCTV footage.

Smart countries are investing heavily in airport automation and in my experience, I have arrived at some airports to meet very few on-ground personnel and multiple types of hi-tech equipment designed to assist passengers in checking in their luggage as well as opening the gates for them to proceed into the main airport terminal. The question is why can’t we have the same at the MMIA and why can’t we make online check-ins and fast track lanes a reality?

This also brings me to the issue of embarrassing travellers by publicly searching their luggage all in the name of checking for drugs or whatever else airport officials look out for. I remember being taken to the NDLEA interrogation room to be searched for drugs simply because I dared to ask them why I have to open my luggage in the airport.

Why is it that no other airport would require you to open up your luggage in public yet they are better at catching criminals? What has happened to all the AI-powered scanners that can identify drugs and other contraband? What goes on at MMIA is simply shameful!

I have always stressed the importance of collaboration especially between the government and the private sector. As such, the government needs to capitalise on the country’s vibrant technology ecosystem by engaging with players in the space to bring technology and modernisation to the systems, processes, and operations of Nigeria’s aviation industry.

As long as the government’s plan to privatise the airports is done fairly and with transparency, it has my support. Frankly, the government has no business in business. The Murtala Muhammed International Airport debacle is a national show of shame; it’s high time we put a stop to it. We should resist every attempt to make foreigners to judge us by the state of our airport and assume that every single person in Nigeria is corrupt.