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Asaba Airport Downgrade:The Big Task Before Okowa

By Hendrix Oliomogbe, Asaba
10 May 2015   |   2:05 am
BUILT on a vast virgin land on the Benin-Asaba expressway, Asaba Airport was billed as the star project of Delta State Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan’s eight-year rule. On the surface, the airport, which was constructed at well over N37 billion, promised so much potential for growth until the hammer of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) descended on it last week.

A view of Asaba Airport PHOTO: HENDRIX OLIOMOGBE

BUILT on a vast virgin land on the Benin-Asaba expressway, Asaba Airport was billed as the star project of Delta State Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan’s eight-year rule. On the surface, the airport, which was constructed at well over N37 billion, promised so much potential for growth until the hammer of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) descended on it last week.

Citing the need for the rehabilitation of the existing runway, taxiways and the construction of perimeter fence, as well as training of technical personnel, NCCA had announced a shocking downgrade of the airport almost four years after commencement of commercial flight. It was like a hit from behind, considering the fact that it is the pride of the state government.

Going by the directive of the regulatory agency, only Dash 8 – Q 400 planes or their equivalent would continue to operate at the airport until the issues raised are resolved, while all Boeing 737s and jets of similar category would be barred.

The airport has a glittering terminal building in the shape of an aircraft while the runway is 3.4 km and a 1.5 km taxiway. It took off on July 13, 2011 with the commencement of commercial flight operations.

As at the last count in October 2013, it had handled 6,331 flights and 192,651 passengers. This is aside the 18 flights and 63 passengers handled before commercial flights began, bringing total operational results to 6,349 flights and 192,714 passengers.

With an average of 260 flights and 6,880 passengers recorded monthly, the airport was on its way to becoming one of the busiest and viable airports in the country within a very short time.

At its peak, the airport was serviced by Arik Air, which operates Boeing 737 planes and Overland Airways who pioneered scheduled commercial flights from the airport. Daily flights linking Lagos and Abuja were operated by the two airlines, while other airlines were warming up to open more routes from the airport.

The length of the runway, one of the few highest in the country, can accommodate the Boeing 747 plane and other long-range aircraft. It would be recalled that during the month of April 2011, when the Delta State capital of Asaba hosted the Second South-South Economic Summit, it recorded the highest flight of 401 while its 9,588 passengers were second to the 9,778 recorded in August 2013.

Elated by the stunning statistics, the Commissioner for Information, Mr. Chike Ogeah, had declared with a little bit of bravado that the figure was unprecedented for a new airport and was only the beginning of the stunning growth of the facility.

He said: “Many people who did not see the vision of Uduaghan when he initiated the project in 2008 derided it as a ruse. Today, the status of the airport as ultra-modern with full navigational aids has been confirmed by the landing on Wednesday November 13 of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan’s presidential jet at 11.30am on his way to Anambra State.”

He said Asaba Airport was conceived as a strategic economic platform to open up, not just Delta State, but also the neighbouring states in the South East to the global business community, adding that with its designation as a cargo airport, it will become a hub for the export of agricultural and manufactured goods in the near future.

“In deciding to build the airport in Asaba, Uduaghan envisioned it as part of a concerted plan that involved the dualisation of the Ughelli-Asaba Road to link the seaports in Warri and Koko to the major commercial outposts in Onitsha and other towns in Anambra State,” Ogeah said, adding that “today, Asaba Airport has become the preferred destination for air travelers in Anambra and Imo states.

” Even before the completion of construction work, the Federal Government had promptly granted an operational license to the airport, citing the facilities on ground which the former Minister of Aviation, Mr. Babatunde Omotoba, said are of high standards.

For not being consulted before commencement of work, the Federal Airport Authority of Nigerian (FAAN), the apex regulatory body in the aviation industry, had initially faulted the extent of work on the airport during an earlier inspection tour.

But when Omotoba visited in company of Uduaghan on December 4, 2009, he gave the governor a pat on the back, after inspection, for taking the initiative to build the airport, saying it will boost the transportation industry in the country. Omotoba said: “You have made the right decision by building an airport of international standard in Asaba.

I have gone through the work you have done so far. I must tell you that I am very pleased with the project because you have channeled your resources in the right direction.

I want to assure the people of Delta state that we will provide all the support to ensure that you deliver the dividend of democracy, not only to the people of Delta State but also to the people of Nigeria.”

An airport source, however, explained that it is an open secret that the contractor was not competent and that from the very start he was never impressed with Omotoba’s stand. The runway undulates and is prone to erosion.

He said: “The contractor does not have the equipment and expertise to execute a project of such magnitude. It was given to him because of political consideration. If it had been built by a competent contractor, such problems wouldn’t have risen.

The whole thing is a waste of scarce resources.” The source advised that to rectify the problems, the incoming government would need to hire the services of a good contractor and fork out several billions of naira to first excavate the asphalt on the runway before laying another.

He said he was surprised that the contractor who had never built a project of such magnitude was chosen above well known firms, adding that the airport at Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, which was built about the same time but by a competent contractor was not downgraded.

The state commissioner in charge of Asaba Airport, Mr. Austin Ayemidejo, said that the reconstruction of the 3.4km runway has been approved by governor Uduaghan, noting that all the safety requirements would be provided within a short time. He assured: “Some airports have been shut down.

But for us, it is only downgrading and efforts are intensifying to put those requirements in order because safety is very important in the aviation industry.”

Echoing Ayemidejo, Ogeah explained that the state government has already set in motion machinery for the upgrade demanded by the regulatory agency.

Ogeah said the governor has approved the engagement of a seasoned consultant to supervise the rehabilitation exercise. He said: “However, being a public sector project, extant rules on procurement and due process will be strictly adhered to. This may, at the initial stage, impact on the commencement of the project.”

The commissioner remarked that the state government is vigorously processing the mobilization of the contractor and the consultant for the job to commence in earnest.

He said work on the perimeter fencing has commenced but, however, added that there is additional acquisition of over 400 hectares of adjoining land, which has increased the scope of work. Ogeah noted that in order to boost security within the airport axis, the government has employed 20 security guards to carry out routine surveillance of the airside.

On the training of requisite technical personnel, he said that all the staff recently employed by the State Government have undergone the four-week mandatory basic training at the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) Training School, Lagos in 2013 while arrangement has reached advanced stage for sending them on specialized training, relevant to their various departments.

Ogeah said: “The downgrade in the status of Asaba Airport has not in any way affected the operation of scheduled commercial flights in and out of the airport.

Arik Air, Aero Contractors and Overland Air, which operate scheduled daily flights have since deployed the right aircraft specification and are providing seamless services to passengers.”

He said the state government is committed to the upgrade of facilities directed by the NCAA and the status of Asaba Airport would soon be restored to accommodate bigger jets such as the Boeing 737.

Devoid of its usual hustle and bustle, a visit to the airport last week revealed that it is presently a shadow of its short glorious past. There were only few automobiles at the car park, which was built to accommodate about 1,300 cars while the boom of aircraft taking off and landing has significantly reduced.

A regular passenger, who gave his name as Osita, said the closure was a big blow to him as he regularly travels to Lagos from the airport. Thoughts of traveling on pothole-ridden roads to the nation’s commercial capital gave him goose bumps. Another passenger, James Obi, said he actually went to the airport to verify news of the downgrade.

The Onitsha, Anambra state-based businessman was on his way to Lagos and came to book a flight but was downcast when he was confronted with the hard reality of the situation.

He lamented: “Ever since the commencement of commercial operations at the airport, I can’t remember the last time I traveled to Lagos by road.

All I need to do is just drive across the River Niger from Onitsha to Asaba, take a flight and in 35 minutes, I am in Lagos but when I came this morning (Friday), I was told that there was no flight, as the airport has been downgraded.

I hope they will resolve the issues on time.” With the dramatic turn of events at the airport, it is no understatement to say that Governor-elect, Senator Arthur Okowa, will have a lot to do at the airport when he is sworn in on May 29.

Against the backdrop of dwindling allocations, cleaning the rot at the edifice will certainly not be a mean task.