Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah
Power outage in Lagos and Abuja airports has adversely affected operations. There is increasing fear that runway lighting system, landing and take-off of flights may be in jeopardy if the problem is not addressed urgently. Chinedu Eze reports
In some countries, sudden cut off of electricity is an aberration. In Nigeria, it is still an awful daily experience. But it becomes very dangerous when this becomes a regular phenomenon at the airports, especially key airports like the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.
In these airports more than 80 per cent of the landing of international airlines takes place in the night and passenger profiling and screening also take place in the night. Unfortunately, it is at this critical period that the airports suffer from power cut which paralyses passenger facilitation and forces security operatives, airport officials and airline
workers to resort to using torchlight.
With the outage, the full body scanner and screening machines would go out of work and the aviation security personnel would resort to physical screening, which is cumbersome, intrusive and archaic. It is also not reliable.
For example, aviation security officials on duty may not be paired man and woman, so when there is sudden outage, a female security operative may not be readily available to search the women and it would be embarrassing when men conduct physical search on women.
Another crucial point is that it slows activities as many passengers would pile up to be screened and the airline officials sweat over, struggling to check in the passengers and in that cacophony, a mean spirited individual can pass with a cocktail of bombs or other dangerous explosives.
Drug dealers escaping to the airside may see this as an opportunity. With darkness at the runway no aircraft with a sober captain will land or take off. That is suicide. So flights will be disrupted at huge expenses to the airlines. And at that moment of outage, there will not be any emergency landing.
This means that a pilot calling for May Day with hope to land at the airport will be devastated as his last effort to save lives has been frustrated by inefficient airport management.
Passengers make a lot of mistakes in darkness. Some will go to the wrong gates to board the wrong aircraft and before they could correct themselves they might miss their flight. There is so much that is wrong power outage at airports. Above all, the wrong people in society will use that moment to strike!
But why frequent power outage? A senior official of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) in Abuja told THISDAY that the construction work at the runway of the airports is largely responsible for the power outage.
Last Friday Air France and Lufthansa diverted their flights to Lagos when the pilots saw the darkness at the runway and in keeping with the airlines’ safety standard felt it was unsafe to land at the Abuja airport; they flew to Lagos and landed, each aircraft burning about 15,000 litres of fuel for about 45 to 50 minutes at the cost of N3 million.
Also, the Arik Air flight that was coming from Port Harcourt air returned to Port Harcourt after it was at the Abuja airspace, burning about 13,000 litres of fuel, while another Arik Air flight that was to come to Lagos from Abuja, waited for two hours with boarded passengers, burning huge volume of fuel to power the cooling system in the aircraft.
A pre-emptive action to avert this outage would have saved such huge expenses. This is not to consider the safety that was compromised, the discomfort to the passengers and appointments and dates that were not kept. This kind of situation makes passengers anxious.
But the senior FAAN official who spoke to THISDAY said that there were instruments that could have aided the aircraft to land even if the runway lighting was off. He noted that Air France and Lufthansa flights chose to go to Lagos and land because in the discretion of the pilots the runway without airfield lighting was not safe enough.
The official noted that every airline has its own safety standard. “A pilot has to obey his airline’s safety standard. On the runway there is what is called RBI reflectors. These reflectors glow when aircraft light is beamed on it and because it is kept at
the edge of the runway it guides the aircraft to land.
They are known as edge lights. We need to educate our people about these. RBI reflectors are used in many airfields in Canada and about two years ago FAAN brought it to Nigeria because we have challenges with power.”
The official also said that the power outage has occurred two times, the Abuja airport is faced with the challenge of rehabilitating a runway while air operations are going on, disclosing that Julius Berger, which is carrying out the construction work has started
replacing the old cables with new ones, adding that it was the old cables that cut off the light at the runway.
“While Julius Berger is working they cannot put on power because it will electrocute the workers. These are high tension wires that are higher than what you put in the houses, so the power is put off while work is going on and when they finished work for that day they
put back the electricity,” the official said. It is expected that the work would finish by
July this year.
Melting Underground Cables
The power outage in Lagos has been traced to old, melting underground cables that should have been replaced many years ago but remained unattended to and since 2010 it has provided fitful performance, ushering in darkness at critical moments.
Power outage that lasted for hours at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos on Friday led to the disrupted of passenger movement and many passengers missed their flights because they could not be profiled or screened in the dark.
Although it is erroneously believed that inadequate power supply has been responsible for these power hiccups, but another FAAN official told THISDAY on Saturday that cables buried underground about 30 years ago when the Lagos airport was built has not been replaced.
Now exceeding their life span by so many years, they cannot stand the pressure so when there is power surge some of them melt and cut off power supply and plunge the terminal into darkness.
“The life span of this armoured cable is 10 to 15 years but some of them have lasted 25 to 30 years and we have continued to use them because there is no replacement programme to change these cables due to corruption and misplacement of priority. These armoured cables are very expensive.
They have been neglected over time,” the source said.
Replacing these cables, according to the source, is capital intensive “so it is not what FAAN can do with its internally generated funds (IGR) so the Federal Government has to come in and if government is serious about remodelling, this problem is what it must have to tackle first.
Another risk of the ageing, melting cables is that if allowed it could cause fire that will engulf the whole airport terminal, unless urgent action is taken. THISDAY learnt that it takes FAAN engineers a long time to trace the parts of the cables that have melted underground.
These cables also give way when there is power surge from the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) as some of the airports have dedicated cables from the public electricity firm. THISDAY also learnt that this problem is not peculiar to the Lagos and Abuja airports; that all the old airports in Kano, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Calabar and others have similar problems.
Power outage encourages porous security as criminals can use the opportunity to gain access to secluded areas and during profiling passengers unattended to crowd the screening area thereby outstretching the capacity of security operatives to effectively attend to each passenger in accordance with stipulated search conditions.
THISDAY also learnt that the Federal Government and FAAN officials are frantically trying to put an end to this recurring problem. But the official who spoke to THISDAY argued that the most efficacious way to end the notorious power outage at the airports is to replace all the old cables.
In 2010, FAAN replaced few burnt underground cables when it suffered similar and continuous power outage, but unfortunately it did not continue to replace all the ageing cables, so the problems keep on recurring. The remodelling of many of the airports can have greater impact when there is no power cut at the airport facilities.