For many years, some of the airport runways have been without airfield lighting. Chinedu Eze reports on the safety and economic implications on the domestic carriers and other aircraft operators
In many parts of the world, it is basic that airport runway has accompanying airfield and approach lighting, which guides the pilot to land on the runways and also taxi to the apron in the night.
But in Nigeria, some of the airports which receive many flights a day do not have airfield lighting, thus limiting operations to such airports. The affected airfields include the domestic runways of the Lagos airport, Enugu airport and that of Margaret Ekpo International Airport, Calabar. There are also Yola and Benin airports.
In December 2008, the former Minister of Aviation, Babatunde Omotoba, unveiled the newly rehabilitated domestic runway at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, known as Runway 18L without airfield lighting.
That was the first open assignment carried out by the then new Minister after his appointment. Even at the unveiling, there was a sanguine atmosphere and a hope on the countenance of the top officials of the aviation agencies that within a matter of months the airfield lighting would be installed.
Many industry officials who had spent years in the sector were aghast that the minister who awarded the contract for the Lagos airport runway rehabilitation did not award the airfield lighting installation so that the job would be done simultaneously.
Earlier this year, the installation, management and maintenance of airfield lighting were moved from the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) and it is hoped that the change in management would bring in positive changes.
Industry experts looked at the safety implication of not having airfield lighting at the airport runways. In the case of Lagos airport which receives over 300 aircraft daily, with peak hours in the night for international operations, it technically has only one runway because from 6:00 p.m. the domestic runway is closed, so all the aircraft land and take off from the international runway, known as Runway 18R.
So in the unexpected event of an accident on the runway and it is closed for about 24 hours, it means that the nation’s busiest airport would be closed for traffic throughout the night when the domestic runway would be out of use.
The consequence is that all international flights would be diverted to neighbouring countries and Abuja, a reality that would cause too much inconvenience to passengers.
Because priority is given to international flights at the Runway 18R, domestic flight coming from anywhere in Nigeria to Lagos must have to wait if an international flight is on the approach, to land first. When the traffic is heavy, a domestic flight could wait for as long as 20 minutes, burning fuel and risking the lives of passengers while hovering to take its turn.
Nigerian domestic carriers are said to lose over N1.5 billion annually to lack of runway lighting, which also compromises safety standards of the airports.
The Managing Director of Aero Contractors, Akin George, explained to THISDAY in a recent interview that lack of runway lighting in Lagos alone costs the airline N60 million a year and lack of night operations at the other airports in the country also cost the airline $35 million (about N5.454 billion).
George said: “Airport infrastructure needs to be overhauled; lack of runway lights in Lagos alone cost Aero N60 million a year, lack of night operations at the airports is a loss of $35 million and lack of lighting of taxiways means a drastic reduction is safety of passengers. Failure of runway lights in Lagos, Abuja, Enugu and Calabar has cost Aero an additional N40 million in 2012 alone.”
Also the Chairman of IRS Airlines, Alhaji Isyaku Rabiu, once commented on the effect of not installing airfield lighting on the domestic runway of Lagos airport.
He said there were many problems of infrastructure at the airports, remarking that in the last three to five years domestic carriers could not land after 7:00 pm at the domestic airport runway 18L in Lagos. “We have to land at the international airport. That, you may think is not much but it is a lot of money that we waste in doing that. It cost money on your wear and tear, on tyres, on your brakes, on your airplanes an on your engines and fuel burnt is excessive.”
Alhaji Rabiu lamented that to taxi all the way from international airport to domestic airport, which is just one long distance could take so much fuel.
“Sometimes, you get held up at the threshold because there are so many airplanes coming and it is practically almost being done manually. And it takes time waiting there burning fuel and wasting a lot of time. For the airline and for the passengers, it is a negative thing. And it is one of the things that can actually affect your departures, because if you are going at 9:00 o’ clock flight and you don’t leave until 9.45 due to problems at the threshold, you will not be able to make it.”
Effect on Airline Operation
An aviation security expert and former commander of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), also told THISDAY that the taxiways do not have lighting.
“Immediately you pull out of the runway, there is no taxiway light. Over 50 per cent have burnt out. There are critical safety and security issues. This gives me personal worry because of the safety and security issues,” Ojikutu said.
A seasoned pilot and a top airline official explained to THISDAY: “In Lagos we have one runway that operates 24 hours. If there is any mishap on the runway, international airlines will divert to Accra, Ghana and Cotonou, Benin Republic. I don’t understand why it takes this long for government to install airfield lighting on runway 18L, making sure that the airports are safe before rehabilitating the terminal buildings,” the pilot said.
He cited airports like the Yola airport “where you will be told there is no lighting so you need not fly there. So the issue has safety and security implications. It is not very expensive to install and maintain runway lights (about N500 million) and they should be building runways with airfield lights.”
The pilot also said that economic implications robs off negatively on the airlines because instead of operating three flights daily to some airports they have to operate two times because by 6:00 pm such airports are closed for flights and practically flights could go on for hours into the night if there is airfield lighting.
“Our aircraft ideally should be operating for 18 hours a day but we are forced to operate some of them for only eight hours thereby underutilising the capacity. So, lack of airfield lighting limits your operation to only from daylight to sunset and if you leased or rented the airplane you have to pay whether you operated it or not.
When contacted, the Special Adviser (Media) to the Minister of Aviation, Joe Obi, said the runway lighting project was in the 2013 budget, which currently is at the National Assembly and if approved, the installation would be done next year.
He also noted that such strident calls never gained such velocity or reached such crescendo that seems to pierce the industry, until recently, adding that the runway lighting and airport infrastructure were neglected over the years before the present administration.
Obi remarked that if the past ministers of aviation were attacked the way the present one is being attacked perhaps these laudable airports rehabilitation the present minister is executing would have been accomplished many years ago; the same with the installation of airfield lighting at the airports.
Unfortunately, he noted, all these were left by past administrations and now the minister of aviation is being attacked as if it was last year that the airfield lighting disappeared from the runway. He assured that with budgetary approvals the airfield lighting would be installed next year as quickly as the airport facilities are being rehabilitated.
The Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah, in an interview with THISDAY explained how the airfield lighting would be installed at the airport runways and powered uninterruptedly. She also explained why the installation of airfield lighting was not done at the Lagos domestic runway till now.
“We met a non-performing contract there. A contract that had been almost 60 per cent mobilised, yet nothing was on the ground (the installation was not done). And because you don’t want litigation you cannot just start without ensuring that legally you are on the right track. That is the major reason you have not seen us do anything about that. Frankly, I refused to pay a man who had received 60 per cent of the cost of the contract six years ago and did zero per cent and then wants you to now renegotiate and pay him, not just 100 per cent but a 400 per cent increase on the original sum for the same contract (of airfield light installation). This is totally wrong as far as I am concerned. At least, I won’t be party to that.”
On installation and powering the runway lights, the minister said: “We have three phases on airfield lighting. We are having back up, on back up, on back up. This simply means that we are going to have the conventional one that is cabled, we are going to have the solar power and in between, we are going to have the inverter. So if one fails you will have the intermediary, and then you have that solar power lighting, then the back up on back up is the generator, should the others fail. Eventually, in the next one year, we are going to have an independent power provider, which will save money used in fuelling the generators. That is what we intend to do.”
A good plan, many in the industry say, but the airline operators and other users of the airport do not want further delay in providing this critical infrastructure to improve security, safety at the airports.