Nigeria boasts of a population many say is almost 200 million. This, however, does not translate to huge passenger traffic due more to prevailing economic situation. WOLE SHADARE writes
Despite a significant increase in domestic passenger traffic in 2019 by almost 30 per cent, there is still a huge gap in travel demand by Nigerians.
This huge gap is further made worse by the recent hike in fares by airlines who themselves are battling to stay afloat as a result of what they claimed is an unfriendly business climate.
The lowest airfare to any route in Nigeria today costs as high as between N52,000 and N56,000. This could further deplete traffic as many more people could take the option of road travel, which is not only tedious, but comes with its attendant risks.
No fewer than 15 million air travellers, both domestic and international, went through Nigeria airports in 2019, according to figures released by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).
The 2019 figure came as a reference point because air travel was at its peak before COVID-19 led to a sharp drop in air travel, not only in Nigeria, but across the globe.
Air travel is yet to fully recover, but there is a steady increase in passenger traffic as many people want to take to air travel occasioned by the huge risks of travelling by road. The 2020 and 2021 traffic figures are yet to match the 2019 figure for obvious reasons, hence, the reference to the 2019 passenger traffic figure.
This story is a paradox of sort, given that the geography, as well as the demographic profile in Nigeria, favours air travel.
The country has a working population of over 80 million, which, in addition to the fact that there are substantial inter-city distances, should favour the propensity to travel by air. The low Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita probably provides some explanation for the low propensity to fly.
Pakistan has a lower GDP per capita and still manages to record a higher flight propensity than Nigeria. The number of active domestic airlines is also lower in Nigeria than in other countries, again indicating the low level of demand for air travel.
Dubai, a city and emirate in the United Arab Emirates had a 3.137 population. The Dubai airport handled 89 million passengers in 2018.
Dubai, Singapore example
The same with Singapore with a population of 5.6 million, but handled 65.6 million passengers in 2018. Infrastructure, security and deliberate plan of making their airport’s hubs have contributed to the success they and others have achieved over the years.
More than one-third of the Nigerian passenger traffic is handled by Lagos alone and almost two-thirds of the total is served by the three airports in Lagos, Abuja and Port-Harcourt.
Airfares are observed to be on the high side. The most trafficked route in the network, Lagos-Abuja, has an average fare of N30,000 per passenger flight hour. Customer confidence in Nigerian airlines is another reason air travel demand is deemed low.
Airlines in Nigeria, as in several places, are mostly passenger movers, hence, the focus on passenger traffic.
Traffic at the 20 nodes shows that over the period 2007–20182, Lagos, Abuja and Port-Harcourt airports accounted for 76 per cent of domestic passenger traffic at the 20 domestic airports.
Abuja and Lagos are Nigeria’s political and commercial capitals respectively, while Port-Harcourt is a major oil-producing city. Clearly, the cost of airfares naturally excludes a large share of Nigeria’s travelling public.
Much of the movements recorded in Lagos pertain to corporate travellers in the middle and high-income categories. Lagos houses much of this group in Nigeria given its status as a megacity.
In Abuja, passengers are mostly top government and private sector workers, while Port-Harcourt travellers thrive on the oil economy. The lower middle class where a great potential for market exists generally does not find airfares affordable. They, therefore, resort to corporate road transport services.
The implication of low traffic densities in several nodes is that many city-pair routes are not commercially viable to the degree that active airlines will increase their service frequencies on these sectors.
Consequently, many nodes in the network do not record sufficiently large passenger movements. Nevertheless, city pairs in Nigeria’s network have great potential for air travel as road distances on these corridors range from 200 km to over 1400 km.
Air transport offers the fastest means of covering these distances as long as airlines keep to scheduled departure times.
Air travel is one of the barometers to gauge the health of a nation. Whenever a country is doing well, it will reflect on the number of people that travel by air. Nigerian aviation is not a stand-alone. It is part of the bigger economy of Nigeria and contributes to the GDP. It is obvious that aviation is the quickest barometer to check any economy.
A frequent traveler and an airline owner, who preferred anonymity, said: “If you check the Nigerian travelling populace, 70 per cent to 80 per cent of those travelling are business people, as compared to the outside world where only 40 per cent are business people, 30 per cent tourists and the other 30 per cent are students and others.
“In Nigeria, if you check the flights going to Abuja, 80 per cent to 85 per cent are on business purpose and once these people don’t have a business to do, it is obvious that there won’t be any movement because if you are not going to do business, no travelling. So, it is a clear quick indication and barometer for the economy.
“So, if the economy is not performing as expected and businessmen are not moving, the airlines will not find the passengers.
“Once the economy begins to jump, business starts to move, then you see movement in our airports. Where 80 per cent to 85 per cent of the passengers are doing business, most of them are not seeing any business to do now. I guess what is happening in Abuja right now is more politics than business. So, it is the politicians that are moving.”
The spokesman of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Sam Adurogboye, recently told the media that the low passenger traffic was a reflection of the prevailing economic situation, noting that the aviation industry cannot be insulated from the rest of the economic mix.
“Air travel and the aviation sector respond to the prevailing economic situation, just like it affects other sectors. In air travel, there is low season and there is also high season. Even on international flights, there are times seats are fully booked and there are also times of flying empty seats. But safety remains our number one priority,” he noted.
Road transport alternative
Since the availability of alternative modes of transportation that are reasonably close substitutes for air transport diminishes with distance travel, it is expected that the demand for air transport will be less elastic for longer flights than for shorter flights.
Furthermore, international travel tends to be spread over more time than domestic travel, so, airfare is a smaller proportion of overall trip costs, which makes international travel less sensitive to changes in ticket prices.
In addition, leisure travellers are more likely to postpone trips to specific locations in response to higher fares or to shop around for those locations offering more affordable fares. Consequently, it is expected that the demand for air transport for leisure reasons will be more elastic than business travel.
This basic concept of the own-price elasticity of air travel in different market segments suggests that if airfares are reduced on Nigeria’s domestic routes, demand for air travel is likely to increase since these routes are short-haul. the prohibitive costs of air travel exclude several potential consumers of the service