A former Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, Mr. Sule Ozenua in reaction to the debate over the plan to close the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja for major repair work on its runway said that such critical matters that border on air safety should never be subjected to political debate, positing that the regulatory authority is empowered with such responsibility and not the Ministry of Transport. He spoke to Chinedu Eze. Excerpts:
What is your view about the Senate’s opposition to the plan by the Ministry of Transport to close the Abuja airport for a comprehensive work on its runway?
Thank you for bringing up this issue. First of all, there is need for us to establish or to know the very fundamental principle under which civil aviation is undertaken worldwide. There is a fundamental principle in the industry, which defines civil aviation as safety and expeditious movement of air traffic, so no matter which area of aviation you are operating, be it airport authority or airport management; be it air traffic control or pilot and aircraft movement, whatever you are doing, the fundamental principle is safety and expeditious flow of traffic. So whatever we are going to talk about, any other excuse is secondary. What one would have expected is that the whole argument about Abuja airport should be defined by the safety situation of the airport.
And who is to define the safety situation? That is where the regulatory body comes in. The regulator, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) knows the conditions under which safety operation should take place at our international airports. One would have expected that regulatory body be allowed to do its job. With the regulatory agency, there is a lot of international involvement. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recognises the position of NCAA; the insurance covers given to airlines is undertaken by NCAA as a result of the position of the regulatory body as it affects any of the aviation units. NCAA is also the one that is saddled with the job for classification and recognition of our airports. So this is not an issue for anybody to dictate to the regulatory body what should normally take place.
Although it could be said that safety consideration won the debate at last but how can the concerned authorities put an end to political debate of critical, safety issues in the industry in future?
Unfortunately what is going on now in the political realm is embarrassing to the nation. It is not projecting us in good light. Nigeria is a very important member of ICAO. Apart from the fact that we are important and ably represented, the Director General of ICAO, Dr. Bernard Aliu, is a Nigerian. He was a staff of NCAA before he was posted to ICAO headquarters to represent Nigeria and all the members of ICAO voted for him to be the Director General. So we should appreciate that factor.
Also recently, I am aware that Airport Council International (ACI) Africa has appointed a Nigerian, Saleh Dunoma (Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria) as their President. This shows that Nigeria is not a country lacking in knowledge of the industry. It is unfortunate that the whole argument went outside aviation regulation, safety and expeditious flow of traffic, into the realm of politics. It is necessary to follow protocol. This is not the first time we are confronted with runway closure in this country. We have done it severally and nobody has heard about it.
The unfortunate thing about Abuja closure is that we want to say Abuja is an international airport. As far as I am concerned and as the world knows, there is no international airport that will be operating with only one runway. And when you go back to the inception of Abuja airport construction, you will find out that the master plan of Abuja airport consists of two runways and one would have expected that less than five years after Abuja came into operation, the second runway should have been in operation. But since 1984, nothing has been done to ensure the construction of the second runway in Abuja. It is as if we all went to sleep.
But over the years, the management of airport authority (FAAN) has tried to draw attention to the need to have second runway at the Abuja Airport. There is massive wear and tear when only one runway is used, 24/7, even if it was constructed for 20 years, so the usage has caused massive deterioration and the hold-up weight has reached the critical limit. Now, with the disrepair, this is where we have reached that critical limit. I am sure that both the regulatory agency and others must have realised the danger at the Abuja airport operating the runway at this critical level. So the only solution we are now faced with because of all the years of negligence is that they have to close the airport.
As I said earlier, we had had cause to close runways. The Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos had had cause to close its runways both 18L and 18R closed at various times, but because we have two runways, nobody heard anything about the closure. Kano airport is the same thing. The runways have been closed at various times to effect comprehensive repairs. Nobody said anything about them because we are running two runways. But when you consider Abuja important, which is very busy, the attention that should have been given to safety and expeditious flow of traffic was never given; rather, they were more interested in comfort, in erecting terminal buildings, leaving the most important aspect of aviation, which is the critical infrastructure at the airside and landing aids. And that is why if you listen to the arguments of a lot of people, their argument is centred on comfort and economic benefits, but they failed to realise that you have to be alive first to enjoy all the other considerations.
Back to the planned second runway, how can the industry make the government understand that the airport critically needs a second runway?
I am happy that we have come to this situation, whereby the interest or comfort of some people is being threatened. So it is now necessary for government to realise that it is absolutely necessary and that it should be a priority to put in place the construction of Abuja second runway. But before you can do that you have to make sure that you carry out a proper rehabilitation of the present runway. This is because there is no way you can continue to operate on the present runway, hoping to construct a second runway, a project that will take you over two years to achieve. So the six weeks they are talking about will be a period of massive work, day and night to be able to accomplish what they want to achieve.
Some people in the industry are beginning to say the NCAA is becoming invincible and ineffectual; that they are no more in charge; otherwise, the closure of the Abuja airport wouldn’t have been a decision taken by the Minister and the Ministry. What is your take on this?
The issue now is that NCAA should be allowed to do its job. And if there is failing within the system, then such failing should be adequately looked into.
Last time the planned second runway was debated at the National Assembly, the project was scuttled by the House of Representatives because of what they described as the outrageous cost of the project, put at N63.5 billion then. Do you think that cost was unrealistic?
The cost is what you make of it. The integrity of that cost was what a lot of people shouted and condemned. But whether we like it or not, we should allow the bill of quantities to determine that. We have been building airports and this is not strange and it is something, which FAAN is supposed to handle but the problem comes and the Ministry goes on to start speaking on issues which actually should be spoken of by a parastatal.
Would you say that we were lucky that major incident or accident did not happen at the Abuja airport before the decision to close it for repairs was taken?
We were very lucky; very fortunate. We are very fortunate that a major incident has not taken place at the Abuja airport and it will not be in our interest for such thing to happen. We have been pushing our luck. In terms of safety NCAA should always come out to tell us what the position is. They should know that insurance companies giving cover to airlines do so because NCAA is there, regulating the industry. This is not an issue for political discussion. With the way we have gone now insurance companies will start to be weary of insuring Nigerian aircraft because of the way we have politicised this matter, insurance companies, which are internationally recognised will become weary of the type of cover they give Nigerian operators. This may lead to increase in the premium because we have already created a situation of doubt by our actions.