Why Closure of Abuja Airport is Imperative

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Chinedu Eze argues that closing the Abuja airport would not have been subjected to debate if the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority was allowed to carry out its responsibility without interferences

This is the first time a critical safety decision on airport infrastructure is being subjected to political debate. Although the Senate, which opposed the closure of Abuja airport for repair of the runway, backed down on Tuesday, it is never the responsibility of the Minister or Ministry of Transport to decide whether airport should be closed for safety reasons. In the past, it was the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) that took such decision and nobody questioned it.

The reason why the closure of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja for three weeks from March 8, 2017 for the repair of the runway eliciting so much reactions is because of the effect of such closure on the economy and politics of Nigeria.

Abuja is the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria. Over the years, it has become the second busiest airport in Nigeria, taking over from Kano. As the airport in the seat of power, closing it would cause a lot of inconveniences to the political leadership of Nigeria as well as the administrative and economic levers of the country. That explained why the closure was being opposed. But by opposing the closure, the National Assembly, which anchored the opposition to the closure, has started an aberration.

Above all, it may be an exposure to a possible tragic accident, and according to industry experts that is where the international air transport organisations in the world would come in.

Certification of Airports

One of the reasons why the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has not certified any of the Nigerian airports through NCAA is because these airports in terms of facility, security and safety have not met international standards. So while Nigerian has about 67 percent overall ICAO rating, none of the nation’s airports is certified.

Industry experts argue that one of the reasons why these airports have not been certified is the inability of NCAA to take decisive to close some airports until certain safety conditions are met before they are opened. While the country lacks the political will, NCAA that is supposed to be autonomous ought to step in and take a decision, which should be final.

They noted that subjecting the closure of Abuja airport for safety critical work on the runway to debate, indicates that the NCAA is not yet autonomous and the airports are well nigh from meeting international ICAO standard for certification.

Member of Aviation Round Table (ART), a think-thank body in the industry and aviation security expert, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd), while referring to the debate at the Senate over whether the airport would be closed or not, said: “The Abuja airport runway is over 30 years old without any maintenance programmes. Elsewhere, runways are built and managed regularly or periodically with a maintenance programmes based on numbers of landings. Not so in Nigeria. Every runway that has been repaired in the past in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano, Kaduna, etc., the airports were all done in the same manner as it is now planned for Abuja; the runways were closed to traffic. Not so however in other climes like the examples given about Gatwick and Accra because these airports have periodic maintenance based on their maintenance programmes. Our lawmakers need some education on how airport operations and their managements work for safety purposes and not necessarily for commercial and political purposes.”

Second Runway

In 2009 and 2010, there was massive debate on the plan to build a second runway at the Nanamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. Then the contention over the planned second runway was the cost and it was the House of Representatives that finally scuttled the project. In retrospect, if that second runway was built then, there would not have been need to close the airport now for the repair of the only existing runway. Work is going on at the Heathrow Airport runway, one of the busiest airports in the world. The airport has two runways and it has secured approval for a third runway. So it is not facing the kind of problem the Abuja airport is facing. Many industry observers said that the House of Representatives did not serve the country well by scuttling the second runway project.

Informed source involved in the project then told THISDAY that the cost of the runway was put at N63.5 billion, which many Nigerians believed was outrageous. THISDAY learnt that the House leadership then allegedly wanted to up the cost by five percent, which was N3 billion that would bring the total cost to N66.5 billion but the executive refused and the House ensured that the project was not executed on the excuse that the cost was too high. Industry observers, however, said that the House could have reviewed the cost of the project downwards, “but instead of doing that they were more interested in choosing the contractors and they wanted to add N3 billion to the cost of the project for themselves,” the reliable source told THISDAY.

While the cost of the project was agreed to be outrageously high, it was a bigger project as it was designed to land heavier aircraft like Airbus A380 with expanded taxiways and other facilities.

The former Minister of Aviation who presided over the planned second runway, Babatunde Omotoba, told THISDAY in an interview about two years ago, “The issue of that runway has become very clear to the whole country that a second runway is needed in Abuja because of what happened. We have two in Kano and Lagos and of course Abuja being the FCT and with our efforts at developing it as operational hub for West Africa, it sure needed a second runway.

“The second runaway was conceived and designed to handle Airbus A380-800F with Category three Airfield Lighting (AFL). The length of the planned runway was 4.5 kilometers with a width span of 75 meters and its strip, which should be free from any obstacle on both side should be 150 meters on the two sides. The basic length of the runway is about 3.4 kilometers and because of the altitude of Abuja, about 1000 feet above Lagos; that will add about 267 meters to the runway and because of the temperature too we used 35.6 degree centigrade to design the runway, when you have high temperature it takes aircraft longer distance to stop, that added about 753 meters to the runway.

That was how the designers arrived at 4.5 kilometers. The current runway that we have was built in 1982 and that is 31 years old now (as at 2014). It was designed to last for 20 years, it has exceeded its useful life and so we saw the need for a second runway. The second and the old one will have about 1.5 kilometer distance between them, for the 1.5 km, 1.5 by 1.4 km.”

Safety concern

Many industry operators said there would not have been any debate about the closure of the Abuja airport if it were realised that this was a safety issue and NCAA, using its autonomy had spearheaded the closure and repair plan. This is because it is the responsibility of NCAA to certify airports, airlines and technical personnel so its decisions are not questioned.

A former Managing Director of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), currently the Deputy Managing Director of Arik Air, Captain Ado Sanusi, speaking in similar vein said that the runway of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja is a threat to air safety, stressing that Nigeria should count itself lucky that in the past two years major accident had not taken place at the airport.

Sanusi who is also a seasoned pilot, who has landed at the airport for several years, said the runway has been in deplorable situation and if it was not closed for major repairs, Nigerians should wait for air crash to happen, which would put an end to the present debate.

He noted, however, that instead of NCAA to declare the airport unsafe and therefore close it for repairs, the Ministry of Transport is deciding the closure, which unfortunately has made the decision a political issue.

Sanusi said all the airport closures due to safety concerns in the past were decided by NCAA, which has the prerogative to do that, noting that although the Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika is an aviator, but he is seen by members of the National Assembly as a politician and that is why there is on-going argument over the airport closure.

“There is a fundamental flaw over who decided that the airport should be closed. That is the responsibility of NCAA as the regulator of the aviation industry, which decides the safety standard of an airport, the airworthiness of an aircraft, the qualification of a pilot or cabin crew and it is NCAA that should decide whether the airport should be closed or not and from our experience, the continued use of that runway is a tragedy waiting to happen,” Sanusi said.

He recalled many years ago when Air France flight landed on cattle at the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa and noted that NCAA closed the airport for safety reasons against the wishes of both the state government, airlines and even the then Ministry of Aviation.

“No one should question the decision of NCAA because it has been given the right by law to take such decision and if NCAA has taken the decision to close the Abuja airport there is no way it would have attracted the on-going debate. We shall be going to a dangerous area if we politicise what borders on safety in the aviation industry,” he said.

Economic Consideration

Also speaking on the need to ensure safe flight operations at the Abuja airport, a cargo airline operator, the Managing Director of Allied Air, Captain Val Tango has said that the decision of the federal government to close the airport to repair the runway was the best option to enhance flight safety into the airport and condemned the stance of some industry stakeholders on the issue, pointing out that the current debate on the perceived inconveniences that come with such closure should not overshadow the safety consideration, adding that continued flights into the Abuja airport is hazardous.

He wondered what the debate is all about, whether it is about safety or disaster, stressing, “aviation is all about safety, safety and safety before commercial consideration or inconvenience”.

Capt. Val was of the opinion that persistent flights into the poor state of the runway has a lot of implications for instance, if there is an incident or accident, it would attract high insurance premium.

He further noted that the nation and indeed airline operators would be better off at the completion of the rehabilitation exercise if “we could endure and cooperate with the government in proffering a lasting solution”.

The federal government and the Ministry of Transport should take the responsibility of closing the airport to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority. This is a body recognised by ICAO and the international aviation community of being in charge of air transport in Nigeria. Many are of the view that this debate erupted because the responsibility of NCAA was usurped and put on the rostrum of political debate.