Shutting down the airport will cause some extraordinary obstacles
Barring any last-minute change of mind, the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja will be closed within the next 48 hours. This is to enable the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) carry out a major rehabilitation work on the runway. At the moment, the only seeming certainty is when the airport would be closed; it is difficult to ascertain when it would be reopened for business. Rehabilitating the runway is a critical safety project, so it would not be rushed. And for as long as the closure remains, Nigeria’s federal capital would practically be hemmed in.
As we stated recently, 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. Many airlines have also reported damage to their aircraft as a result. Yet the consequences of shutting the airport for weeks are enormous. Besides, the alternate airport, which is in Kaduna, does not have the facilities for easy passenger facilitation and it is about two hours’ drive to Abuja on a terrible road that is considered insecure and where many kidnapping incidents have taken place.
The Kaduna State Government said it has facilitated rail transport by connecting a road from the airport to the railway station while there have been arrangements made by helicopter service companies to shuttle passengers from the Kaduna airport to the VIP tarmac of the Abuja airport. However, these alternative means of movement do not guarantee the safety of passengers and they are expensive and time-consuming.
Meanwhile, the closure has both economic and political implications. Most of the investors and other entrepreneurs who would have businesses in Abuja may defer their visits until the airport is reopened, as many of them would not want to risk landing in Kaduna and coming to Abuja by other means. The closure would also jolt political activities, including diplomatic interactions because most of the officials who represent their country in Nigeria are very particular about their safety and may not want to land in Kaduna.
Citing security reasons, British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM, Air France, South Africa Airways, Etihad, Qatar, Emirates and Turkish Airlines have already declined government’s suggestion to divert their flights to Kaduna. According to the airlines, the consideration to use Kaduna airport as alternative to Abuja dimmed on February 23 when two German archaeologists were kidnapped near the city. The second reason is that the local carriers are not in any form of partnership with these international airlines so they cannot codeshare or use them to fly passengers to their final destinations.
It is indeed noteworthy that two days to the closure of the airport, several questions are still begging for answers. Shutting down the airport means closing the air corridor to the capital city, just to fix a runway. Have the authorities considered the security implications of such a decision? What would happen in the case of any emergency health evacuation of medical patients by air? What of the sheer logistics of ferrying thousands of passengers and the security on Abuja-Kaduna road? What of the loss to the aviation, car hire industries and others businesses?
As late in the day as it may seem, we still insist that closing Abuja airport for six weeks (probably for a longer period) will be too costly not only for airline operators but other users who generate sustaining income from its operations. We therefore urge the federal government to review its decision and go for partial closure that will at least allow for certain aircraft to land and take off while the repair work is going on.