Flight diversions: Cutting through the bedlam
Baring any hitches, all flights bound for the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja will soon be diverted to the Kaduna Airport. It is going to be a big test for the Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, who is spearheading the effort.
The aim is to make way for the repairs of the Abuja Airport runway, stretching up to 4.5 km. No thanks to years of poor routine maintenance and failure to construct a second runway for Nigeria’s second busiest airport.
Make no mistake, with the closure of the airport expected to last six weeks, this is going to be a huge logistical challenge. It could involve as many as 550, 000 domestic and international passengers and no fewer than 8,500 flights. The saving grace being that Kaduna isn’t a very busy airport, handling just 1, 025 domestic flights in the first half of 2016. There are hardly any overseas services save for a handful of technical stops (for refueling) and non-scheduled flights.
Still, you would have thought that with good planning and execution, this should be a seamless and easy operation, a stroll in the park. But precisely because this is Nigeria, the whole effort is mired in unnecessary controversy. Even politicians have jumped into the fray, with Governor Ayo Fayose leading the pack.
But one particular comment caught my attention: that of Senator Shehu Sani. Sani is by all standards a model senator, very engaging, very focused. If he’s not tackling core legislative issues, he is reaching out to his constituents, touching their lives. He is also a fighter, especially where good causes are involved. I know because I am one of his 105, 000 followers on Twitter. On January 8, 2017, the Distinguished Senator tweeted, “It’s a great honour to make Kaduna International Airport the alternative route to Abuja…”
This, and many such comments, feed into a very frightening narrative: purely technical decisions and operation are grossly misunderstood by a wide spectrum of opinions and interests. A very simple, technical matter has been made heavily complicated and political. This serious work is being overshadowed by speculations, misconceptions and politics. Reportedly, even Niger State tried to put Minna Airport forward as a possible candidate! This has been very unhelpful for the image of the industry and the country at large. And this is why I have decided to intervene.
I won’t fault you if you blame it all on poor information flow from the aviation authorities, especially the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), which manages the 22 airports in the country, and will be coordinating the Abuja-Kaduna operations.
The point is that Kaduna is the alternate airport for Abuja for purely technical reasons, just like Ilorin is the alternate airport for Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos. It is not a decision that is — or should be — made by the Presidency, politicians, NGOs, social media influencers or pressure groups of any persuasion. It is not a matter of choice. It is a decision made even as an airport is being conceived and constructed, with all technical reasons taken into account.
An alternate airport is where flights can land or be diverted to if for any reasons, such as inclement weather or technical difficulties, an aircraft is unable to make it to its destination airport. Such situations are, in a manner of speaking, usually emergencies. That is how alternate airports are designated. Thus if, as has happened before, an aircraft tries to land at MMA, Lagos and the runway lighting suddenly goes off or there are cattle lolling across the taxiway and runway, the pilot should be able to make his way to Ilorin and land safely. Same with Abuja and Kaduna.
What this means therefore is that the alternate airport must be technically enabled and ready to serve as one at all times. For example, an alternate airport like Kaduna must have sufficient runway length and width to handle wide-bodied aircraft that usually land at Abuja. Otherwise, airlines (through what is called notice to airmen or NOTAM) must be so advised. The implication: airlines could be compelled to bring in smaller, low-capacity equipment, leading to possible reduced income for airlines and airport as well as disruption for passengers. The good news is that Kaduna Airport, with runway length of 3,000 metres and width of 60 metres, can safely handle the diverted flights.
It must also have sufficient fire cover and other emergency services in case they are needed. Critical landing aids such as ILS, VOR, DME, etc must be in excellent condition and properly calibrated. The authorities who manage Bauchi Airport were recently caught napping when it turned out that its landing aids were below par, and deemed not safe to handle a presidential flight.
Ukpong is a journalist based in Lagos.
This is ominous because calibration isn’t everybody’s cup of tea; like all matters aviation, it has a high dollar component. In fact until recently all our landing aids were checked by the Dakar-based ASECNA. With the dollar selling for about N500 and government’s effort to help the industry falling far short, calibrating our landing aids is still feasible only because ASECNA remains a group in which members pull resources.
Fire cover, I can hardly vouch for. We have come a long way from the Sosoliso crash at Port Harcourt International Airport and the attendant carnage partly due to poor fire cover. Not that any lessons have been learnt from that tragedy. As recently as 2014, fire patrollers were acquired and deployed to airports with inscriptions and instruction manuals in German! It is also a matter of grave concern that none of our airports have been certified by the authorities, a sore and embarrassing point for the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority. (Lagos came close to it after the perimeter fencing but a few gaps have tied the hands of NCAA).
Being an alternate airport is not some fanciful moniker or prestigious title. It is a designation laden with a strict regime of standards and recommended practices. For the uninitiated, global best practice. This is extremely important because emergencies are akin to accidents; they never announce their arrival.
So, Distinguished Senator, it’s not a “great honour” that Kaduna is the alternate airport to Abuja. It was neither a decision made by Sirika nor a policy that came into being to honour anyone or Kaduna State. Sirika may be the Minister of State, a political appointee, but he is also an aviator; he’s merely respecting laid down procedures. He’s not doing anybody any favours or honour. There are no credits to be taken; there is no political capital to be exploited. There’s no such thing here.
I have not lost sight of the fact that part of the reason Kaduna Airport is raising so much dust is the state of our infrastructure and security. There are concerns about the conditions of the Abuja-Kaduna road and the ongoing killings in Southern Kaduna. But that’s hardly the point of this piece. Which is why Minna, for instance, cannot simply be decreed an alternate airport to Abuja just because the Abuja-Minna road is in a better shape. Government should put down the madness in SK and secure the Abuja-Kaduna road not necessarily because flights are being diverted to Kaduna Airport but because it is the right thing to do.
Another point is that Abuja needs a second runway. It nearly happened around 2011 but had to be scrapped when it emerged that the contract had been padded 10 times over. Given what we knew then and the seeming desire to price things appropriately, now is the time to do it.