The six weeks closure will be costly. Nigeria should learn from the Heathrow Airport’s experience
Nigerians may not be able to quantify the huge losses to be incurred when the nation’s major gateway, the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja is locked up for six weeks. The Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, said the airport would be closed within some unspecified dates between February and March this year to allow Julius Berger carry out major rehabilitation on the runway. Sirika added that those flying into and out of Abuja would be ferried by bus to and from Kaduna airport.
There are good reasons for the repair works. The existing runway was built in 1981 with a lifespan of 20 years. So it is no surprise that it is a sorry state. In 2013, a Saudi Arabian cargo aircraft was damaged when it taxied through a section of the runway under construction and it led to the closure of the airport for almost 24 hours, impacting on passengers and airlines.
However, the consequences of shutting the Abuja airport for six weeks are enormous. It will disrupt economic activities of government and its agencies and also businesses in the capital city. Besides, the alternate airport, which is in Kaduna, does not have the facilities for easy passenger facilitation and it is about one and half hours drive to Abuja on a dilapidated road that is considered insecure, where many kidnapping incidents have taken place.
Several questions have been raised since the report became public. Shutting down the airport means closing the air corridor to the capital city, just to fix a runway. What of security? What of emergency health evacuations by air? What of the sheer logistics of ferrying hundreds of thousands and the security on Abuja-Kaduna road? What of the loss to the aviation, car hire industries and others businesses?
About two months ago when the international carrier, Emirates Airways decided to stop operating to Abuja airport because of the damaged runway and South Africa Airways flight damaged its undercarriage when it landed, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) set up a committee to decide on the modalities for the repair work, whether the airport should be closed for the duration of rehabilitation or whether it would close for some hours. At the end of their assignment, the committee recommended, after examining various options, that there should be partial closure of the airport. One of the factors the committee considered was that the Kaduna airport does not have enough counters while the terminal is under construction. The airport also does not have functional control tower, it has porous fence and access to the airport from Kano and from Abuja is poor.
Unfortunately, it is the same airport that Sirika announced should serve as the alternate airport for international airlines while closing the Abuja airport for six weeks, just to undergo the repairs of a runway!
There are lessons to learn from other shores. The British Airports Authority (BAA) Limited, which is managing Heathrow Airport, London, one of the busiest in the world, recently contacted airlines that operate at the airport and notified them that the company wished to carry out repairs. BAA Limited and the airlines reviewed the landing slot allocations to find the most appropriate time the rehabilitation work could be carried out. Initially, BAA suggested that for five hours every day, starting from 10 pm, repair work would be done at the airport. But when Arik Air notified that 10 pm would not be appropriate for it, the airport management changed the time to 10:45 pm.
Closing Abuja airport for six weeks will be too costly not only for airline operators but other users who generate sustaining income from such airport. We therefore urge the federal government to review its decision and adopt the BAA Limited approach.