No fly zone for Abuja expired runway
Abuja airport is one the few privileged Nigerian aerodromes that has lighting system for night operations. It was the kind of assurance he needed to jump onboard his aircraft from Lagos and head up north.
As a top-rated pilot and Chief Executive Officer of his chartered service airline, he has the opportunity to fly at the slightest notice. The time was 20:15. By 00:00hours he hoped to land in Lagos on return trip.
Air traffic control at the Abuja end gave express approval for landing some 55mins into the journey. The chief pilot thought the return trip might just be earlier than initially thought. He was wrong.
Descending on the runway with the aircraft still at top speed, an unusual bang came from the rear. It suggested that the plane ran into an impediment that almost caused it to tumble as it jumped. He didn’t lose control and that was the saving grace.
“It was one of the most terrible experiences of my flying career,” recounted the pilot. “Rocks on the runway are always a disaster waiting to happen. Yet, I got the permission to land and that was it.”
The pilot, who is also a Chief Executive Officer of a popular chartered service airline in the country, had the aircraft grounded at Abuja for five days while fixing the damaged landing gear.
Barely two weeks later, it was the turn of a wide-body South African Airways’ plane to be damaged due to the faulty runway. For more than two weeks, team of engineers worked day and night to fix the damaged engine.
Today, it remains a mystery that the country didn’t record a major disaster at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), otherwise called Abuja airport in the last couple of months.It is a fact that the only runway for both international and domestic airlines at the airport has expired about a decade ago, going by international aviation standards.
An average runway around the world has between 20 to 25 years expiration period. Abuja airport was built in 1983, and by rule, should have been rehabilitated in 2007. About 10 years after, it portends a great risk and an imminent national embarrassment.Weeks after the near-mishap incident of the private aircraft and South African commercial passenger plane, the Federal Government woke up with a plan to fix the runway — the second busiest in the country. The 4000metres-long runway was in December 2016, penciled for repair at the cost of over N1billion.
While none was in doubt that the action was already 10 years behind schedule, the modality of the construction exercise has attracted controversies among the stakeholders.According to the Ministry of State for Aviation, the reconstruction exercise will take six weeks, during which the only airport that services the seat of Nigerian government will be a no fly zone. During the self-imposed embargo, Abuja-bound airlines and passengers will make do with the Kaduna airport, some 230kilometres from Abuja.
A runway or airport on complete shutdown is quite unusual in modern times. And stakeholders, including the National Assembly, Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON) and aviation workers’ unions were quick to fire back at the Federal Government’s decision on closure. For the international airlines and High Commissions, the Kaduna alternative seems as bad as managing the defective runway.
Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, explained at a stakeholders’ meeting that the airport would be closed for six weeks, beginning from March 8, to allow Julius Berger carry out total re-construction on the badly damaged airport runway.Sirika said that while the runway would still be put to use under the six months of rehabilitation, the six weeks would allow the mid section of the runway to be reconstructed.
According to him, “From start to finish of the runway, it will take six months. However, we will be using the runway almost throughout the period except for about six weeks when the runway will be closed. That is when we are going to do the mid-section of the runway.
“The government has accepted the design done by the contractor. The runway will last for than 10 years on completion,” he said.The Minister added that arrangements had been finalised with Kaduna State, adding that while the Federal Government will provide buses to convey the passengers to Abuja, the state government will provide security.
Domestic, Foreign Airlines Kick
Operators of Nigeria (AON), an umbrella body for domestic operators, expressed reservations about complete closure of the runway.Chairman of AON, Capt. Nogie Meggison, said the repairs could be carried out at night, while flights are allowed to operate during the day.
He said the operators were of the opinion that repairs of the runway could be carried out between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., while flight operations could take place during the day.The airline chief said Gatwick Airport in the United Kingdom, which like Abuja airport has only one runway, did not shut down when repairs were carried out on its runway. This is despite that Gatwick has more than 10 times the volume of air traffic that the Abuja airport has, he said.
Apparently displeased with the Kaduna alternative, The Guardian learnt that foreign airlines are considering suspension of services while the repairs lasted. The option by some of the major European and American carriers was in lieu of the plan to divert air traffic to Kaduna Airport, which is considered as “very unsafe for foreigners.”
And should the airlines carry out their threats, concerned stakeholders said that inbound and outbound travellers would be faced with lesser flight options, hike in fares and loss in revenue to government agencies.Head of Operations at the Abuja office of a popular European carrier, who preferred not to be mentioned, said their consular office was already working out a better option.
The operator said: “All I can say is that safety is paramount to us and I’m sure it is a primary consideration for our counterparts too. From what I heard from our home country, our aircraft would not fly to Kaduna, come what may.
“In some days to come, the final decision would be taken on the matter. A temporary suspension of Abuja operations is tough, but it will be a sacrifice for the safety of crew and passengers,” the source said.
Aviation Security Consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd.) had said that with the security issues in the northern parts of the country, none of the foreign airlines would want to fly to Kaduna.
Ojikutu said: “For them (FG) to want to use Kaduna for foreign airlines, I have my doubts that the airlines will go there. It is for security reasons. The way security is built in the north is different from how we have built it here.
President of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), Bernard Bankole, said the “avoidable” development would portend a bad omen for the sector, with effects that could last far longer than the six weeks duration.
Bankole said instead of foreign airlines suspending operations, the Federal Government should rather divert foreign traffic to Lagos, while domestic operators go to Kaduna airport.He said that the civil unrest in Kaduna worries the foreign airlines and their affiliated travel agencies, leaving none satisfied with the said security arrangement of the Federal Government.
Experts Urge Caution
DOYEN of the aviation sector in Nigeria, Capt. Dele Ore, aligned with the government on plans for the runway repairs, and shocked by the position of the airline operators.Ore, with about five decades of experience in the industry, said the argument was “unprofessional and shocking.”
He recalled an accident in November 2003, when a cargo airplane, Hydro Cargo, crash landed in Lagos amidst repairs on one of the runways.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 in 2008 requested for proposals, “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 build 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’.”
The Cost Of Closure
WHILE airlines and passengers rue closure, many small businesses that operate around the airport are not left out. For the latter group, the closure is tantamount to six weeks without any income.Mallam Ali Abdulazeez Aliu, the Executive Chairman, Airport Car Hire Association of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, said they will definitely be out of income during the closure, as each of his members may be loosing at least N10, 000 on weekly basis if there are no passengers to carry.
Miss Margaret Patrick, a vendor stand operator, at the International departure side said she would definitely close her vendor stand and stay at home. She estimated a loss of about of N10, 000 per week during the closure.Miss Patrick, who also sells recharge card and few books, says she was yet to figure out how she would survive the six weeks closure.
Mallam Aliyu Yahaya, the CEO, Gogora Nigeria Limited, a trader in clothes and jewelries at the domestic departure terminal said up till now he hasn’t been officially served notice that the airport will be shut down. “I’m still on standby waiting for the final word on the matter before I take a decision,” he said. He however noted that once the airport is shut down, naturally they would vacate their shops.
On the estimated losses, he said he couldn’t give a definite estimate as his profits fluctuate depending on the sales of the day, though he agreed he would incur some losses.
Alh. Nura Mohammed, the CEO, Mai Nasara who deals in shoes and clothes at the airport lamented the imminent closure, saying he would have to relocate to Kano to live with his families as living without an income in Abuja for six weeks will be devastating.
“If I stay in Abuja, how will I pay my bills and feed without an income?” he queried.Also, the President of Nigerian Society of Engineers, Mr. Otis Anyaeji said that the closure of the NAIA would not mean well for the country economically, as the aviation sector contributes significantly to the socio-economic growth of Nigeria.
The President, Nigerian Society of Engineers, Mr. Otis Anyaeji, told journalists in Abuja that shutting down the only runway and by extension the NAIA would create enormous ripple effects for the passengers and cargo traffic flowing in and out of the Federal Capital Territory.
“Closing that airport is synonymous with the shutting down of our economy for six weeks or more and by extension, the economy of Africa, because this country’s economy is ranked the largest on the continent,” he said.