John ODHE, Yenagoa
Despite frantic efforts being made by the state government to ensure that the Bayelsa International Airport remains afloat, there are concerns that the multi-billion naira facility has become non-functional following the grounding of flights by airline operators plying the airport.
The history of the Bayelsa state International Airport dates back to the days of the first civilian governor of the oil-rich state, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha who muted the idea and located it at his place, Amassoma in Southern Ijaw local government area of the state.
However, nothing visible was done about actualising the dream during the Alamieyeseigha’s administration save for the acquisition and clearing of the land.
Also, due to the brevity of his administration, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan who succeeded Alamieyeseigha did not also do anything on the airport project before he was drafted to become a vice presidential running mate to Musa Yar’Adua both of whom later became president and vice president of Nigeria respectively in 2007.
After the exit of Jonathan, Chief Timipre Sylva who succeeded him decided to relocate the airport project from Amassoma to the Zarama axis of the East-West Road, where a vast land was acquired and cleared, but the project never proceeded beyond that level before Sylva’s abrupt exit from Creek Haven.
Sylva’s reason for relocating the project to the east-west road was for easy access by prospective passengers as against Amassoma that is somewhat hidden.
When Seriake Dickson came on board, he relocated the airport project back to the original site and began the project in earnest and completed the project in a record amount of close to a hundred billion naira which raised controversy as critics tagged the project as the costliest constructed airport in Nigeria’s history.
After Dickson’s eight years reign, the incumbent governor, Senator Douye Diri took over and inaugurated the airport for commercial flights with special arrangement with two different airlines –the Ibom Air owned by the Akwa Ibom state government and the United Airline.
The governor upon assumption of office in 2020 made an arrangement with Ibom air to be flying Bayelsa-Abuja and Bayelsa Lagos for a start with a Memorandum of Understanding that Bayelsa government would make up for any vacant seat in the event of shortage of passengers. The arrangement was, however, stalled momentarily due to the huge capacity of Ibom airlines with over 200 passengers’ capacity airlines, prompting Bayelsa to opt out of the deal and contracted united airline which has smaller airplanes.
The Ibom air later joined United Airline in providing air services at the airport after providing smaller airplanes and the business was going on smoothly.
However, trouble started when the price of aviation fuel hit the skies, rising from about N200 per litre to N700 as a result of scarcity of the product, a situation that forced the aviation sector to increase local aviation fares.
With the increase in airplane fare which resulted in a sharp drop in air travels, TNN learnt that it became difficult for the Bayelsa state government to continue paying for empty seats in accordance with the MoU reached with the airlines, thereby forcing the airliners to withdraw their services.
Meanwhile, the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state has blamed the shutting down of operations at the state airport on what it described as the wrong choice of location of the facility.
Speaking in a live radio programme in Yenagoa, the state capital, state chairman of the APC, Chief Dennis Otiotio recalled that the choice of former governor Sylsva to site the airport at the east-west road was the best bet for the project.
Otiotio reasoned that had the airport been located along the busy east-west road, it would have attracted more customers from neighbouring states such as Delta and Rivers.
The APC chairman described the position where the airport is sited as obscure for security purposes, pointing out that the road leading to the airport was also too narrow for such a calibre of facility, urging the state government to expand the road.
He argued that the idea of the state supplementing for empty seats in every air trip was not sustainable considering the high cost of air transport.