‘Why Abuja runway should be closed during repairs’
Hues and cries by airline operators notwithstanding, experts have thrown their weight behind the Federal Government’s decision to completely close the runway of Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, during the six-week repair exercise.
The experts reckon that complete closure is though unusual in modern airports around the world, but for the peculiarity of the Abuja airport, the measure is imperative to avoid another air disaster.
Given the security issues in the North, concern has been on the safety of air travellers if Abuja flights are diverted to Kaduna, one of the troubled states in the region, despite assurance from government.
In effect, they appealed to all parties concerned – operators, passengers, and the general public, to bear with the government, to ensure that the country is not embarrassed during the repairs.
In a related development, travel agencies in the country have called on the Federal Government to commence work on the second runway at the Abuja airport. President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Bernard Bankole, said the second runway was over due for an airport that services the seat of government, amidst rapid population growth in Abuja.
The 4000metres long runway has been in bad shape in the last couple of months and was in December 2016 penciled for repair at the cost of N1billion. While the repair work would last for at least six weeks, air traffic will be diverted to Kaduna airport, from where buses will take passengers back to Abuja in a two-hour road journey.
Doyen of the aviation sector in Nigeria, Capt. Dele Ore, recently told reporters that he aligned with the government on plans for the runway repairs, and shocked by the position of the airline operators.
Recall that the Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON), the umbrella body of domestic airlines in the country, last week faulted the closure plan, calling for partial use of the runway since repair work will not affect the entire runway.
Ore, with about five decades of experience in the industry, said the argument was “unprofessional and shocking.”He said: “I was shocked to hear AON said they would manage the runway. They will land on one side while work is going on on the other side. Are we so uninformed? The whole world will laugh at such a thing.”
He recalled an accident in November 2003, when a cargo airplane, Hydro Cargo, crash landed in Lagos. Though the airport has two runways, one was being resurfaced but the workers, it was alleged, left some equipment on the runway. The air traffic controllers, unaware of the situation cleared the Hydro Cargo plane to land on the resurfaced runway at night, causing a crash and huge embarrassment to the country.
According to the Ore, “That same mistake would be made with partial closure of the Abuja runway. Besides the technicality of take-off that require a full runway length, there is one side of Abuja, such that on takeoff, it is towards the hills. For such, you need the full runway to avert an accident. And I believe the AON got it wrong. It was so unprofessional,” he said.
The retired captain, who founded the Aviation Round Table (ART), the think-tank group of the industry, recalled that for 15 years, the group canvassed for the construction of a second runway at Abuja airport, “but no one listened”.
When the Senate did in 2008 and proposal requested, “some interested parties” demanded for “over-bloated and embarrassing sum” of N64billion, which ensured that the proposal was thrown away. “The question was that are you going to pave the runway with gold? Because the amount of money requested was enough to built two new airports with terminals and two parallel runways in a virgin land. So, we didn’t take advantage of that.
“ART kept warning and it is on record, the president of our country could be coming from abroad and someone could have crashed on the runway, the president will not be able to land. It has now dawned on us that the runway needs repair, nearly 15 years behind schedule. It means we have been endangering the lives of people for so long. That is why I’m in support of the government that said ‘let’s close this place down’.”
NANTA president, Bankole, observed that issues of infrastructure at the airports have constantly embarrassed successive administrations in the country, adding that the onus is one the current government to take full responsibility for happenings around the airports.
While he aligns with the closure of the runway for repair, Bankole said it was high time the government reconsiders the construction of an alternative runway for the Abuja airport.
He said: “We are requesting that the government embark on the implementation of the second runway. So that in another 10 or 15 years, we will not be talking about a runway that is not good and causing the nation an embarrassment.”
Bankole added that with the paucity of fund amidst recession facing the economy, the government should consider the option of Public Private Partnership (PPP) or special loan to get the second runway done in good time. “That will ease the pressure of this kind of situation in the future. The government of today have shown that they are proactive. Let us see same in ensuring that the construction of the second runway kicks off,” he said.