Ali Tounsi is the Secretary General of Airports Council International, Africa. In this interview with MAUREEN IHUA-MADUENYI, he says airports can generate more revenue from concession and commercial enterprises
The 59th ACI conference has just ended, how would you rate its performance over the years?
We have achieved a lot. I can’t speak about those times before I came in but since I came in, we have achieved a lot through the conference. We are now more visible and changing the business by creating more value for airports and now we have more safe and secure airport systems across the continent.
In fact, we have achieved excellence in safety, security and business too. There is a lot also to do. So, we will continue to work with our members in defending their goals to help the system.
Are you satisfied with the global rating of African airports at the moment?
African airports compared to others in the world are not the best, frankly, but it depends on the region and the airport. South African airports are doing well; their standards are high. Johannesburg, for instance, handles more than 20 million passengers annually, which is one of the busiest in the world; so are some airports in North Africa.
But inside Africa, there are a lot of small airports and a lot of them are not efficient; no money; no investment and high quality of service because all these come with traffic. But you should know that running an airport is very expensive; buildings and maintenance require a lot of money and these are achieved through taxes and fees. So, if there is no traffic, there will be less revenue, which is why most of the small airports are not making enough money. These have impact on the quality of service.
In Africa, we are facing a lot of challenges such as low traffic to bring in money to develop the airports. But we are hoping that now, with the open skies through the Single African Air Travel Market, there will be more traffic and the business of airports will improve. So, we are hoping that it will bring in a lot of value for our business.
Some airlines are opposed to the implementation of the SAATM because they feel they are not strong enough to compete. What is your view on this?
We learn from other people’s experience. When they started the open skies and deregulation in the United States of America, some airlines stopped operating because they were losing money due to their inability to compete but other airlines gained a lot by offering a lot of services.
So, like every business, if you are not strong enough, you cannot remain in the business except you change your operating system or business model to remain competitive or you apply some new regulations to your operations. And instead of being scared to implement SAATM, airlines should change their business models, change the mindset, change the management and be more proactive and reactive; reduce the money they spend on certain things and generally look for solutions.
If we continue like this, we will remain where we are. We should know that any positive change will have some victims and some winners. I know that it will happen but we cannot keep protecting them, we have to move on like the rest of the world; we should be fair. It is a new regulation; they should follow it or get out of the system.
Do you think mergers and acquisitions can help airlines that are not strong enough to remain in business?
Yes and no. In fact, it depends on the airlines involved. Airline business is very complicated; sometimes airlines cannot merge; and sometimes they can. But now, we have airline groups working together, it is a good development and concept. Sometimes, they complement each other especially in regional operations, where some airlines bring traffic to international airlines like what is happening in Togo with Asky and Ethiopian Airlines.
So, it depends on the airline; it is not my skill but I feel some airlines can benefit from the partnership and merging if they are willing to try it. Sometimes also, when you merge with someone very weak, he will keep you down; so they must take care. But I know that there are a lot of partnerships that can create more value for airlines.
The focus of ACI Africa this year is on transforming airports into commercial enterprises to generate more revenue. What strategies are in place to actualise this?
The old model of getting revenue is through airlines, taxes and fees. This means that to make more revenue, we should increase taxes. But by increasing taxes, airports will become very expensive and will not attract airlines and passengers. That means the more taxes, the lower the revenue and we cannot continue like that. This is because our airports will become one of the most expensive in the world.
So, the idea is to create more business from other areas like retail, concession and airport cities which can help to create more revenue for the airports and help them to grow, reduce taxes, attract more airlines and develop the system. So, this is the concept; it is to be more aggressive on commercial, not looking for taxes only from airlines. This will help us because it will be a win-win situation for airline operators, airport managers and passengers.
What is your impression of Lagos airport as Nigeria’s busiest?
I have seen a lot of development which is impressive. I am impressed with the development of Nigeria; this is one major point that brings value to the country and to transportation. Transportation, airlines and airports and the industry generally are the pillars of the development of a country.
As one of the fastest growing cities and countries in the world, Lagos and Nigeria cannot do without a good airport. From what I saw, the airport is growing, there is a new terminal in Lagos, which I believe will be an addition to the existing one and bring more quality service. We need that to travel fast. It is a good sign for Nigeria and we hope for better things to come. Looking at the statistics, Nigeria is doing very well.
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