From Uche Usim, Abuja
ON January 3, the Minister of State, Aviation, Hadi Sirika shocked the public, especially the aviation community with the unsettling news that the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, will be shut for six weeks (from March 8-April 19, 2017), to enable the government carry out extensive repairs on its dilapidated runway.
The announcement naturally threw both local and foreign airlines off balance, as they knew their schedules and operations would be horribly disrupted.
However, the flipside of the ‘sad news’ was that the Kaduna International Airport would serve as alternative for the duration of the repairs.
Indeed, the planned closure of NAIA has elicited different reactions from within and outside aviation circles, with most stakeholders vehemently rejecting the decision to shut the second busiest airport in Nigeria for six weeks. The National Assembly is also not treating the matter with levity as the Chairman, Senate Committee on Aviation, Hope Uzodinma called for partial closure to give room for skeletal operations.
He insisted that a total shutdown would negatively impact international trade and related activities with ripple effects that can exert further pressure on the economy.
Supported by his colleagues, Uzodinma further said the closure will not serve the people’s collective interest, even as the upper chamber summoned the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Chibuike Amaechi; Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika; Minister of Works, Power and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola (SAN) and Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Mr. Muhammad Bello. Others invited include the Chief of Air Staff, Sadique Abubakar, officials of Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and other stakeholders in the aviation sector.
The top government officials are expected to brief the Senate on the details of the planned closure and to explore other options to avoid a total shutdown.
The Senate’s views were in alignment with the position of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) and many aviation consultants, who insist the major repairs, can be done at night without complete closure of an important airport that serves the presidency, the legislature, diplomatic community, security agencies, top government functionaries and the public.
AON Chairman, Capt. Noggie Meggison, at a recent stakeholders’ meeting in Abuja said the body was in total support of planned repairs of the Abuja Airport runway to buoy safe operations. He, however, advised the government to carry out the rehabilitation in a manner that only about half of the runway would be closed allowing smaller airplanes to land on the other half.
“The Abuja Airport runway should be repaired at night like between midnight and 6am as it is done in other climes. Such is the strategy used at Gatwick Airport in the UK, which handles 400,000 passengers a year. Abuja handles about 40,000. If Gatwick can be done that way, why not Abuja? International airlines can fly into Kano and Lagos and distribute passengers for them, because Kaduna doesn’t seem to work for them.
“We should look again into the cost of logistics and support. Runway of Abuja International Airport is 3.9kms. Split it into two, we can fix each part for four weeks, while the other part remains operational. So, smaller airplanes like the B737s and CRJs can land. Kaduna Airport can’t handle a high volume of passengers and airplanes. We’re in total support of rehabilitation of the Abuja International Airport runway. It has become a safety concern and needs to be addressed”, he said.
The NAIA Airport became operational in 1982 and at the time of commissioning, civil engineers put the lifespan at 20 years after which a total and comprehensive rehabilitation ought to be done.
Rather than stick to professional advice, the runway in the last 14 years has been subjected to perennial abuse with occasional patch works carried out to barely keep it functional. Now, the haphazard repairs have taken its toll and the runway has finally succumbed to pressure of heavy airplanes, thus caving in at various spots.
The weak runway has damaged many airplanes, throwing the affected airlines into unforeseen and avoidable expenses. For instance, on December 4, 2013, a Saudi Arabian cargo plane damaged its landing gear in a major incident at the Abuja Airport runway, which led to the closure of the airport for several hours, from the night of December 4 to the evening of the following day. Again, in August 2016, there was another major incident involving a South African Airways aircraft that got damaged when it landed on the same runway.
Just last year, an Emirates aircraft was also damaged when it landed on the same runway and when the airline managed to fix the damaged B777, it bade the NAIA goodbye. The bad runway was one of the reasons the airline stopped operations into Abuja Airport. As Emirates shunned NAIA, it triggered spontaneous reactions from other international airlines including Kenya Airways that hinted of plans to pull out of Abuja because of the dreaded runway that has recorded multiple incidences of landing gear damages both to scheduled and private jet operators.
So, late last year, Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika in company of seasoned engineers and airport technical personnel toured the NAIA and concluded that something ought to be done urgently before the airport eventually shuts down itself like the Port Harcourt International Airport that was force-closed for about two and half years for major repairs.
On his findings after the tour, Sirika said: “This administration with safety and security as its priority has decided to face the problem head-on. The cooperation of all stakeholders is, therefore, required to enable us go through this transition period with minimal discomfort.
It is better I lose billions than lose one soul. We’ve listened to various experts and stakeholders. We’ve held a meeting with all stakeholders and we all agreed that partial closure wouldn’t address the rut on ground. People are saying something about Gatwick Airport in the UK. Gatwick Airport partially closed for major repairs because it undergoes regular rehabilitation such that there is no grand rut. NAIA doesn’t enjoy such regular and comprehensive maintenance. So, it’s total closure. We’ve looked at it critically.
The four levels of structure for that runway are gone. All I can assure airlines and other users of the NAIA is that the closure won’t exceed an hour on the scheduled day of reopening. All what we need for the repairs will be on ground. We’ll work full blast. There will be redundancies as well”, Sirika assured.
The choice of Kaduna Airport
Airlines, members of the diplomatic community, passengers and other players in the aviation sector are wondering why the Federal Government is insisting that all flights be diverted to Kaduna Airport. The carriers prefer to remain in Lagos in the event the partial closure option does not sail through. Air travelers on their part also queried the decision to make Kaduna Airport the alternative when there are closer airports like Niger and Plateau.
Indeed, Niger, Plateau and Kwara states lobbied to be made alternative airports because of the multiplier effects on their respective economies. With over 20 international passenger and cargo airlines and domestic carriers coming into their domain daily for six weeks, it will improve their revenues accruable from various charges and taxes. It will also create brisk but hefty businesses for hotels, banks, agencies and other service providers.
The Niger State government particularly felt the Minna Airport was a natural alternative to Abuja because of proximity advantage and longer runway.
While Kaduna Airport runway is 3kms, Minna Airport runway is 3.4kms and they both have almost similar navigational facilities.
But checks by Sunday Sun shows that accessing Minna Airport, though closer to NAIA is a major challenge as the roads are in horrible shape. The Kaduna-Abuja road is certainly smoother than the Minna-Abuja road. This was considered a major impediment, as passengers would not like further waste of time commuting.
While tongues wag over the choice of Kaduna Airport, the Aviation Minister did not adduce weighty reasons other airports like Jos and Ilorin could not be considered. He simply said at a recent stakeholders meeting in Abuja: “The three other airports close to Abuja-Minna Airport in Niger State, Yakubu Gowon Airport in Jos and Ilorin Airport in Kwara did not meet the criteria set by the Federal Government as alternative airports. Niger and Kwara states are probably thinking they are better alternatives. They are very good alternatives for sure but unfortunately, there are quite a number of criteria we looked at which the other airports did not meet before we chose Kaduna”.
The Minister’s position was dismissed by some Nigerians who insist the Kaduna Airport alternative is politically motivated. They believe the Governor, Nasir el-Rufai, being a close ally of President Buhari may have lobbied for his state.
Security concerns and inconveniences
Not a few Nigerians have expressed worry over the planned relocation of flights to Kaduna Airport in the event NAIA is shut as planned.
Aviation analysts say passengers will have to pay more for their air journeys and this may shoot an average fare of an hour’s ticket from N23, 000 to about N30, 000. The same increase is expected on the international flights. This is aside the fact that passengers have to factor the cost and inconveniences of the two and half-hour journey by road (Abuja-Kaduna or Kaduna-Abuja) to board, perhaps, a one-hour flight.
The National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA) is also uncomfortable with the expected hike in airfares, especially for airlines that hitherto were not flying to Kaduna. The association says such airlines will be forced to relocate their staff, equipment and then create an operational structure for their flights in the new place. The cost of the ad-hoc operation would be transferred to the passengers.
Security experts have also said it is a huge risk for the President, his Vice and other top government functionaries to hop on helicopters to Kaduna to board their airplanes, describing the development as poorly thought out.
An aviation security consultant who does not want his name in print said: “Do you know what it means to always use helicopters for inter-state trips before boarding the presidential jet? You don’t totally shut an airport where the seat of power is. You just have to figure out how to fix the runway and still allow skeletal operations. There are so many fleeing Boko Haram members in the Northcentral. They are armed. Helicopters don’t fly too high. There is kidnapping and other criminal activities going on around and you still want government officials and travelers generally to risk all that? It doesn’t speak well at all.”
A frequent traveler, Kingsley Mong wondered, “How can our safety and security be guaranteed especially given the communal clashes in Southern Kaduna? Won’t travelers become victims of circumstance? What are the facilities on ground to soak-up the expected upsurge in aircraft and passenger traffic because Kaduna Airport has only a 500-passenger terminal for Hajj, which is a different kind of operation?
How will people and cargoes be screened to avoid possible security breaches? Who bears the extra cost of transportation between Abuja and Kaduna and vice versa? How many ordinary Nigerian travelers can security operatives secure, especially those who may not want to go in the designated shuttles? Are we not risking kidnapping here?”.
In the same vein, the representative of foreign airlines operating in Abuja, Osho Joseph described the planned closure of NAIA as a total disruption of their schedules and operations. He said foreign carriers were worried about the safety of their multi-million dollar airplanes, the precious lives of passengers and crew; logistics challenges like aviation fuel supply, capacity to handle bigger airplanes and more passengers, among others.
He insists Kaduna Airport lacks the capacity and logistics to buoy sound international flights, saying the foreign airlines prefer to land in Lagos.
“We’re supposed to learn from past experiences. We shouldn’t have waited this long before repairing the runway. We have individual concerns aside security issues. We believe Kaduna Airport is an alternate airport for local airlines, but not foreign carriers.
“Again, we ask, what arrangements are on ground in Kaduna to assist fuel marketers? Besides, since the thinking is to utilize the opportunity of the dry season, why not start the repairs in February and end in March?” he wondered.
Also not finding the development funny are ground-handling companies who would have to move heavy machinery to Kaduna at an exorbitant cost.
Airport workers, quarantine service, anti-narcotics and other agencies are to move their equipment and personnel to Kaduna from Abuja, which comes at a high cost.
Some of their staff would have to be compulsorily quartered in hotels, which become fresh unplanned expenses.
Allaying the security and safety concerns raised in various quarters, the Minister of State, Aviation, Hadi Sirika assured of adequate security of travelers on transit by road from Abuja to Kaduna and vice versa. He said the Ministry of Defence, the Nigeria Police Force, National Security and Civil Defence Corps, the Directorate of State Security and other agencies would provide cover for aircraft, airlines’ staff and passengers.
“We’ll increase the number of security personnel around Kaduna metropolis. Every village and intersection, there’ll be traffic controllers. There’ll be NEMA, fire fighters, ambulances at certain strategic positions. Police and the Air Force are to provide aerial patrols, complemented by ground police. There’ll be intelligence gathering. There’ll be bus coaches, train services, specialized car hire services, there’ll be helicopter shuttles too from private operators. But the government will provide shuttles for passengers”, he stated.
Already, Sirika has ordered the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to relocate the mobile tower at NAIA to Kaduna International Airport for use during the six-week closure. It is to serve as a backup at Kaduna Airport.
“We will make use of the Fire Service watchtower and if there is an event of failure, we will have a backup of mobile tower that will be moved from Abuja Airport to Kaduna Airport for that purpose.”
Sirika however said it was the decision of the airlines to decide whether to fly to Kaduna or not.
“It’s a commercial decision for the airlines. We’re providing Kaduna Airport as an alternative and if they don’t want it, it is their decision. But for me, why should I stop in Lagos and take a local flight to Kaduna and then to Abuja by road? It’s stressful and of course more expensive. So, any international airline that comes to Kaduna Airport will certainly be my preferred choice”, he said.
Speaking in the same vein, the Executive Secretary, Kaduna Investment Promotion Agency, Mallam Gambo Hamza, said the state was prepared for the anticipated traffic surge, adding that provision for security with 20 policemen on standby at every kilometre was in place.
Just last week, the Federal Government approved N11 billion for the repairs of the Kaduna-Abuja dual carriageway to ensure there is smooth flow of traffic on that busy axis.