Helicopters stuck in Abuja airport despite lift on ban
Some commercial helicopters deployed for operations in and out of Abuja have remained stuck at the temporarily closed Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport for over a week. This is despite claims that the Federal Government has lifted the ban on their use around the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
The Guardian learnt that as at Sunday morning, operators were still unable to move the choppers.Helicopter operators and other investors have continued to lose money days after the no-fly order was purportedly lifted. And while millions of dollars worth of aircraft are idling away, air travellers are still confined to hours of travel either by rail or road to reach Abuja from Kaduna International Airport.
The office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) penultimate Friday banned helicopter operations in Abuja, citing security concerns following the closure of the airport for runway repairs.
The Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, however, said that the ban had been lifted following reports on economic implications of such an order. But till yesterday, nothing appeared to have changed.
The Head of Operations of one of the airlines confirmed that they were yet to resume operations because “we still have our choppers in Abuja and they have not been released to fly.”
The director, who would not want to be mentioned, said the ban or no-ban order appeared to have been muddled up in controversy, such that operators really don’t know what to believe.
The President of the Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON), Capt. Nogie Meggison, who has been at the forefront of negotiations for the reversal of the ban, confirmed that operations were yet to resume.
Meggison explained that the plan was to immediately have the stuck rotary wing aircraft freed for use following pronouncements that the ban had been lifted.“The latest, as I have been told, is that letters (on suspension of ban) were only sent out late Friday to airlines. Bristow flew today (Sunday). So, I’m hopeful that operations will fully resume this week and things will get better,” Meggison said.
A top-rated official at Bristow could only confirm a communication from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to resume operations, suggesting that the ban has been lifted. He was hopeful that Bristow would resume operations today.
A source close to the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, said that the helicopters had been freed to operate, though restricted to only two helipads belonging to Julius Berger and Nigeria Customs, both in Abuja.
The source said the challenge might be lack of clearance on the customs’ helipad, but that of Julius Berger has been cleared for operations “from where Bristow ran its Abuja-Minna operations today (Sunday).”
The Guardian last week reported that the operators were counting their losses in billions, with leased special-purpose helicopters worth $20 million each sitting idle in Lagos and Abuja, while operators continue to incur the cost of parking, crew and maintenance.
With the choppers unable to move, operators were forced to start refunding already booked shuttle and chartered services to their customers. The costs of a direct helicopter shuttle service from Lagos to Abuja went for between N150, 000 and N200, 000 per head. A similar flight on Kaduna-Abuja or Minna-Abuja route cost between N50, 000 and N100, 000. Charter services were booking in millions, The Guardian learnt.
Meanwhile, to beat the challenges posed by the closure of the Abuja airport, some Nigerians are weighing the benefits of Skype and video conferencing to meet their scheduled engagements within the period. This is a better option than using the Kaduna International Airport as an alternative route to getting to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), but cost could be a limitation.
The airport was shut down on March 8 for repairs that will run for six weeks. As a result, passengers travelling to the nation’s capital will have to fly first to Kaduna, and later travel 200 kilometres to Abuja by bus or rail, guarded by security operatives provided by the government.
Given the inconveniences associated with the detour to Kaduna, in terms of man-hour loss, frequent flight delays and cancellations, insecurity in Southern Kaduna as well as expensive helicopter flights, electronic meetings are considered to offer the best alternatives.
With Skype, video conferencing and tele-presence, it is possible for one to be in Lagos and connect with business associates either in Abuja or even outside the country to finalise transactions.
To operate their businesses via tele-conferencing, video conferencing, among others, industry operators put the infrastructure cost from networking firms at around N5 million yearly, outside additional costs, compared to a return road trip that costs less than N20, 000.
The dilemma among firms is reinforced by the short period of closure of the airport as against the investment that would be put into teleconferencing and others. Confirming this challenge, a senior official of Huawei Technology told The Guardian that the firm was actually deploying tele-presence facility during this period, but noted that it is a bit costly. “Notwithstanding that, it improves efficiency and ensures timeliness of meetings, compared to having to leave Lagos for Abuja or vice versa,” the official, who did not want his name published, said.
According to him, the facility is not something that can be deployed within a week because of the infrastructure required, which include terminals, different systems and bandwidth. “Most people and organisations will enjoy it if it is on permanent basis, so this one-off thing may not really pay. However, we are deploying it. We also deploy outside the country.”
An official of Smartedge Business Solutions, Lagos, who spoke also anonymously, said: “Firms are actually making demands through our vendors for the services, especially now to beat the challenge of having to travel up and down, but when they weigh the cost of deploying such facility, which is around N5 million, they only make promises. If the closure is to be for a year, organisations might have considered it helpful for the period.”
Apart from the fact that it is cost- saving and guarantees efficiency of processes, it reduces risks associated with travelling from one point to another. Already, there have been reported cases of flight delays, outright cancellations, and poor facilities, which have resulted in huge financial losses for both airline operators and travellers. Intending travellers, who have been exploring Skype and video conferencing facilities are bridging the gaps fast.
Before now, video calling or conferencing was a luxury and required expensive and (then) complex equipment and expertise. Today, market observers believe individuals can carry it in the pocket, participate in and host video conferencing sessions on a Smartphone and mobile device as well as on the computer with basic hardware and adequate Internet connectivity.
The Guardian’s investigations have shown that video conferencing is becoming more common and more accessible because of the advent and development of voice over Internet Protocol (IP) in this part of the world, which harnesses the underlying IP infrastructure of the Internet to make free communication possible.
A technology solutions professional, Tolu Ogunsanya, described Skype for business as a corporate-wide unified communication (UC) software solution which enables users to communicate via several methods such as an integrated chat feature (Instant Messaging), IP telephony, video conference, audio conference, web conference and screen sharing.
According to him, Skype for business has the ability to bring everyone together in an easy manner using online meetings regardless of organisation, location or device.“With Skype for business, individuals can save time and cost of travel. Imagine a 30-minute meeting in Abuja, you would have spent roughly 15 hours to be able to attend the meeting via flight considering the time of putting the logistics together. But with this solution, under 30 minutes, you can get your meeting done,” Ogunsanya noted.
He disclosed that since the temporary closure of the Abuja Airport, there has been increase in interest to utilise the service. “There are lots of organisations already using this service and enjoying the benefits in travel time and cost reduction, especially with the current economy. These organisations cut across SMBs and large enterprises.”
Confirming this, the Country General Manager, Cisco Nigeria, Olakunle Oloruntimehin, told The Guardian that “We have lots of customers making use of our collaboration tools from the financial services industry, oil and gas to public sector.”
Speaking on the advantage of using a video conferencing facility, especially for such meetings, Oloruntimehin argued that tele-presence and other collaboration tools bring a huge opportunity for companies to participate, using virtual reality with colleagues in any city in the country.“It is no longer imperative to fly from Abuja to Lagos and vice versa for weekly meetings. You can take the calls from your office and even from your home,” he said.
Also confirming the cost effectiveness of the electronic medium, a top official of MTN Nigeria, who preferred anonymity, told The Guardian that the management used tele-presence to interconnect with over 10,000 employees in 22 countries, stressing that the process saves cost, boosts efficiency and is risk-saving.
With regard to the adoption of such a method of meeting, Oloruntimehin said with time, the need would grow, stressing that like all technology trends, “it takes a while for companies to see the cost, productivity and other benefits they come with, but once it picks, it really goes big.”