MTA (Ph.D.), Toronto, Canada 01-12-18
I have been hearing and reading about Ethiopian's plan to build a mega airport outside Addis. In the Reporter’s January 6, 2018 print, I read “Ethiopian Airlines floats tender to undertake ramp expansion: new mega airport city project awaits government's decision.” The project is expected to cost Ethiopian billions of dollars. I went through the article with mixed feelings. On the one hand, seeing the national carrier grow by leaps and bounds warms my heart – that too when many other Africa and global carriers continue to struggle for survival. On the other hand, I question if building one mega airport is a “smart” solution to the growing needs. With more than 100 million people, and still growing, and an economy that is likely to advance exponentially, one more mega-airport will never suffice. I do not have an “insider” information about the involvement of federal and regional bodies and experts but such an ambitious project warrants more dialogue and foresight. There are many reasons why Ethiopian needs to avoid building a mega airport outside Addis. We already know about the feud between Addis Ababa city administration and the Oromia regional state on land issues. The various industrial zones already built and those that will be built in the future will require effective means of transport including air services. For a country as poor as ours, and taking into account that it will take billions of dollars more to run a mega airport (the further the airport is from the city, the higher the running cost), I think the first step should be to look at other options. I argue one such an option should be improving Bole airport, and decentralizing flights to other airports in the country.
Ethiopia owns more international airports than any other country in the region. Arba Minch, Bahir Dar, Dire Dawa, Gonder, Mekelle, Axum, and recently Hawassa have international airports with the necessary infrastructure and adequate room to accommodate more growth. These airports are already underutilized. I presume the idea behind building these airports was to make the regional cities hubs for passenger and cargo flights as the economy of the country grows. Needless to say, the final destination of all passengers originating from Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia is not Addis Ababa. Many of them travel to other parts of the country by land and air. The Addis Ababa airport can serve those destined directly to Addis and those with international connections. The regional hubs, in turn, can be linked to nearby towns through domestic flights. This is not any different from first landing at Bole and then connecting to other parts of the country. Planners can use Ethiopian passenger data history to determine how many of the passengers have also bookings for domestic connections or board domestic flights before their international flights. This approach will definitely require a decentralized organizational capacity, efficient domestic flight connections, and a new strategy.
The benefit of decentralized flight system is not limited to easing the pressure from Bole international airport. It has the capacity of igniting (or strengthening) local economies in the different regions. Economic benefits from local transport, hotels, and other related services can equitably be distributed among the regions. They create local jobs for the youth without the need to migrate to other areas. Of course, such decentralization cannot be planned in isolation. It needs to be supported by decentralization of passport issuance/renewal, access to hard currency and relevant banking services. All developed countries have multiple international airports, each strategically located to serve domestic and international passengers and cargo. In Ethiopia too, the decentralization can start step by step. First, the airline can identify seasons where more Ethiopians and tourists fly to and out of and schedule special direct flights to regional airports with more potential passengers. While passengers slowly get used to the new normal, Ethiopian can embark on developing its organizational capacity in these airports.
If deliberate actions are not taken to develop more than one major city in the country, how else are the other cities expected to grow and open up new opportunities for their residents? How can we blame people who migrate to the capital for better options? This short article is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis - I am not even well-positioned to provide a comprehensive analysis. I rather intend to invite other authentic individuals to air their perspectives.