As Airlines, Other Stakeholders Brace up for Closure of Abuja Airport…

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Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja

Due to the deterioration of the only runway at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, there are plans to close the airport for a major work to be done on its runway. Airlines, service providers and passengers are already bracing up for the closure, writes Chinedu Eze

Many industry insiders were peeved when the Senate refused that the Abuja airport, which is the second busiest in the country, should be closed so that major work could be done on the runway.

The Senate insisted that there must be a way to get round it without closing the airport. The members cited examples from elsewhere where major work was done on airport runway while the airport was still operating.

The senators looked at the issue from the economic and political viewpoints. They noted the level of disruption that would occur if the airport was closed for even a short period. It would disrupt the movement of top government officials, businessmen and women, but above all the political leadership of the country.

But the Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, assured the senators that the period the airport would be closed would be for six weeks, starting from March 8, 2017 and that it would not exceed six weeks. He told them that the alternative airport would be Kaduna airport and before the Abuja airport would be closed, Kaduna would be ready to provide the needed service. The senators later gave in because the issue involved safety.

Abuja Airport Runway

The runway of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja was built in 1984 to last for 20 years, so the runway expired in 2004 and since then it had been undergoing various levels of patch works. According to the former Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Sule Ozenua, in the Abuja airport master plan it was conceived that the second runway at the airport would be built shortly after the take-off of the airport.

According to him, “The unfortunate thing about Abuja airport 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 the 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.”

There were plans to build a second runway in 2009/2010 but this project was allegedly frustrated by the then leadership of the House of Representatives, which indicated that the cost of the project at N63.5 billion was outrageous. However, the leadership had later argued that it expected that government should have reviewed the project cost and brought it back for another debate and possible approval.

Economic Loss

FAAN official told THISDAY that the agency would lose estimated revenue of over N2 billion from international carriers and domestic flight operations.

Foreign airlines that operate to Abuja airport include Egypt Air, Air France, British Airways, Ethiopia Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, South Africa Airways and Middle East Airlines.

FAAN generates about N800 million and $180,000 (N64, 800, 000), totalling N1.44 billion monthly from foreign carriers in Abuja, which means that if they refused to move to Kaduna as they have already stated, the agency would lose the aforementioned revenue. These include fees, which contribute about 30 per cent to FAAN’s revenue.

“If the airport is closed for six weeks it means that FAAN will lose two months’ revenue. This will aggravate the impact of the current recession on the agency, which is already struggling to earn money to carry out major infrastructural projects at the airports. Foreign airlines have made it clear that they would not go to Kaduna; rather, they would move to Lagos. But government has objected to this. We just pray that the duration of the closure will not last more than the six weeks,” the official said.

For instance, Lufthansa on Thursday reiterated that it would not operate to Kaduna airport when the Abuja airport is closed. While expressing its own decision, it reflected the collective decision of foreign carriers that operate to Abuja.

Also, some domestic carriers have estimated that they would lose huge resources during the closure but gave support to the closure for safety reasons.

Some of the airlines said they would reduce their flights to the alternate airport, which is Kaduna, because not many passengers travelling to Abuja would like to land there.

“So we expect drastic reduction of passengers to Abuja and we are also going to reduce our frequency to Abuja, now Kaduna. Although the Minister (Senator Hadi Sirika) assured Nigerians of safety on the Kaduna to Abuja road, but I know that many of our passengers will suspend their travel to Abuja during that period of closure. And many people who come to Lagos and other cities from Abuja to spend their weekend will have to stay back in Abuja until the airport is reopened,” said an operator.

But despite the fact they would lose revenue, almost all Nigerian airlines have given support to the closure so that comprehensive work could be done on the runway.

“We support the closure of the Abuja airport so that thorough work can be done on the runway, but we know we will lose money and the closure will disrupt our operations, but for safety’s sake we support the closure. That runway was a death trap and they said there is no other alternative than to close the airport, so let them close. But it is important they start building a second runway immediately,” another operator told THISDAY.

Improved Runway

Many industry operators and other stakeholders had blamed the federal government for not having maintenance programme for the airport. They also accused the Senate of politicising critical safety facility, which if neglected could lead to loss of lives.

Ozenua said what should be paramount in the decision about the closure of the airport for the rehabilitation of the runway should have been safety consideration because civil aviation is defined as “safe and expeditious movement of air traffic,” which means that material losses and other inconveniences are secondary to safety. But, he said the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) should have been allowed to make pronuncements on the plan to close the airport.

“The regulator, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, 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,” Ozenua said.

Passengers

While airlines would suffer financial loss, especially the international carriers, it is the passengers that will suffer the most inconveniences. This is why many, who spoke to THISDAY wished there would be another alternative that would not involve closure of the airport. Many passengers told THISDAY that for the six weeks that the airport would be closed, they would not go to Abuja. But there is a positive side to it. Many people, who leave Abuja to Lagos and other destinations every weekend, would have to stay back in the capital city, which would raise economic activities during the weekends. But for the airlines, there will be depletion in their load factor.

Helicopter to the Rescue

Bristow Helicopters and other chopper operators have said they would place their equipment in Kaduna to airlift passengers to Abuja airport at token fees.

The Base Manager of the Bristow’s new highbrow schedule passenger service to Abuja, Ayo Stilo Oni, said: “We have gone to Kaduna and other neighbouring airports. We will make a choice of where to go that will be convenient and safe for our passengers and we will transport the passengers for a small fee, using helicopters from the location to Abuja. We will use our helicopter to transfer passengers from Kaduna or any other location to Abuja. While the runway in Abuja is closed for fixed wing aircraft, helicopters can operate to the airport.”

Industry critics said that FAAN must have maintenance programme for airport facilities, pointing out that, if there were such programme, the runway would not have degenerated to the extent that it necessitated the closure of the airport for a major repair. The critics also said there should be urgent plan to establish a second runway at the airport.