The Regional Terminal Manager, South West, in charge of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, Mrs. Victoria Shin-Aba, in this interview says the facility and other airports under the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria are fully compliant with the coronavirus protocols. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:
How will you describe the impact of the coronavirus on airport operations during the first phase of the virus?
COVID-19 came like a wave nobody expected, or nobody planned for and it led to the closure of the airport as gateway to the nation. The impact I will say has been devastating, sort of, because it went as far as recording like five per cent of our revenue, which the running of the airport depends on. It went that low until after some time when we started having these evacuation flights, then when cargo started coming in, just in bits but not like it used to be. The Murtala Muhammed Airport was closed for about six months for international flights, the domestic three months. You can imagine the financial impact it will have on the authority because as much as the airport was operationally closed, we were working, the facilities were being manned, because it was better to man and maintain than leave.
This is because by the time you come back the facilities would be worse off. So, it was like needing more money when money was not coming in and it became like inversely proportional. And we had to go the extra length to put so many things in place so that the airport could be COVID-19 compliant so that people would feel safe using the airport. So extra facilities have to be put in place. We had to change most of the toilets; the taps have to be put on by sensors, that is, touch-less. We had to get sanitising stations, automatic hand wash, we had to do the markings. So many things went into it, by and large I want to say we have pulled through not financially but at least the airport is doing well.
You might have spent much money migrating to COVID-19 compliant status?
Definitely. A lot of things were put in place, like the canopies outside. Because of the new protocols people had to check their temperature before coming into the terminal. People have to wash their hands. The temperature check too is a proper one with computer, which ensures that you don’t need to touch it; as soon as you approach the terminal it takes your temperature. If you are not using your facemask, it tells you to put on your mask. And then we had to disinfect bags, the chemicals, the people, the machinery are all at our expense. The management provided for us and we were able to do a lot both at the domestic terminal and international. When domestic was open people were surprised at what we have done, because the whole place looked like a new terminal. All the toilets were refurbished because we took the closure to do a lot of things.Since September 5, 2020, flights have resumed but it is not like the same because there are still restrictions in some
countries, would you say there is a relief now?
Definitely yes, I want to believe MMA specially we have more than 50 per cent of what we used to have, I mean the passenger throughput. And last week (mid December 2020) Lufthansa, KLM and Air France started too, you know they were not operating before so things are coming up, one funny thing is that Nigerians love travelling, so people are coming up and things are improving and gradually we will get there.
Government said the new terminal would be launched in February, but that area doesn’t seem to have been fully prepared to allow enough space for taxiway and aircraft maneuvering. So will they reopen it without removing some structures still in the place?
Well, I think the management is working on that but they don’t want that to delay the reopening. So one side is ready with four avio-bridges that can successfully take large body aircraft. And we want to convert the bridges to big ones such that they can take two big aircraft successfully. Even the other side too, we can board from any of the bridges. We have seven bridges at the new terminal, so currently four is ready on one side, so the other side is the one that is having issues, which the management and the government are taking care of. Even if that one is not ready yet, people can board from the other side, they will bus them into the aircraft until work is completed.
At the resumption of operations FAAN increased its charges for both passenger and airlines, what was the response like?
It was only one line of charges that was increased and that is the passenger service charge (PSC). Although it is the airline that collects it but I think it was long overdue. I think it was last increased either in 2011 or 2010, I am not sure, which is about nine years ago. And you and I know that cost of things have increased, prices have skyrocketed and FAAN needed money more than ever before. You know you were asking me how did FAAN get all these monies to transform the airport facilities for COVID-19 compliance; although it is not the money that is being used but at least if you have hope of getting something then it will make you to bounce back easily. So it was only the PSC that was increased, and it is just a 100 per cent increase.
Even before the COVID-19 lockdown, there seems to be improvement in security and there are no reports of people loitering at the airside or at the runway as it is used to be. So, what did you do to make that possible?
Well, we used to have the challenge, but we had to put up a lot of security operations and procedures – different layers of procedures. First and foremost every incoming or outgoing aircraft is escorted by a patrol van, it is a standard now. As soon as the aircraft lands and it is taxiing, we have a patrol team that escort it to the parking bay. So that one has eliminated a lot of issues. Number two; we have constant joint patrol between AVSEC, the military, and the police. Then illumination too is being improved, a lot of thick bushes that used to be there along the approach of the international runway; that is, Runway 18R, was removed extensively.
So it was easy for people to see what is happening at the other end. So, patrol has been improved, patrol has increased and even currently we are building watchtowers. About six watchtowers that will be manned so that anywhere people are it will be easy to see them. It has been on but it was stopped by COVID-19, the contractor actually moved to site before the beginning of the pandemic but he is back to site now and they are working. Then we improved the CCTV coverage of the runway especially, such if anything is happening it is easy to spot and then the people on patrol will be alerted to ensure that such an area is combed very well.
There was time they removed all the search tables for the screening of passenger, as part of the ease of doing business policy, but in a subtle way the security operatives seem to have brought them back with the cubicle and they are still harassing passengers, so how is FAAN managing that?
The executive order actually removed the search table but the main issue is that there is still some equipment especially the ones that the NDLEA) the National Drug Law enforcement Agency) said they needed that has still not been provided. So I think the moment we have that all those things will be a thing of the past. They needed equipment they said could detect drugs and knowing Nigerians, they can take advantage. So that is why, but it is not as if we are looking the other way, there are CCTVs in those places, anyway. And once in a while when there are infringements we name and shame. We take them once in a while and show it to their bosses. In fact, there was a time before the advent of COVID-19, there was a time we call a few of the supervisors and heads of all the agencies to come and see what their people are doing. But we make official reports.
Do you think touting can ever stop at the international terminal of the Lagos airport?
Honestly, if there is one tough issue to deal with in the airport especially MMA, it is the issue of touting. And like you said, the issue of former or old staff of different agencies including cleaning, that is one, the airport is within the city, without sounding immodest flock to the airport. It is a societal thing, and there is no way you can remove the airport from the larger society or the society it belongs to. But if the airport is far from the town like 40 kilometers away from town, like Kaduna airport, before somebody will enter the road knowing the distance it will take time. People can trek from Mafoluku, Ajao Estate, Ikeja, to the airport. So that is one major challenge at the airport. Old staff, former staff, the town and our culture too, so at times you don’t even know the difference between touts, meeters and the greeters. One person is travelling, 10 people are seeing the person off. And it is still because it is still within the town. If you have to travel two hours before getting to the airport, I think not many people will follow him.
How far have you gone in resolving those issues about power outage and do you think in the foreseeable future that problem can permanently be put aside?
Why we had those issues then was because of the new terminal But most of those times it was in the area of relocating them or maybe while they are working they got damaged and we needed to relocate them to a safer place where it can easily be maintained. So most of those things have been done and aside that we don’t really have issues again. Then at the powerhouse the transformers have been energised, we now have two new transformers that can carry the whole load. Before we had that issue due to load shading issues because of the capacity of the transformer. That problem was also solved and currently there is a job being done that will stabilise light within the terminal. Some inverters that were installed some time ago has been revived with new batteries and tested and in fact we will have seamless lightening even when we have outages, the inverter will come up and you won’t know that we even had an outage.
So in the next few weeks it is going to come on board or it is going to be commissioned. We are just trying to see that there is a first correction panel, they don’t want it damaged, which is the inverters themselves getting damaged, which is delaying it. As soon as that is done in MMA, I want to assure you that you won’t even know that the light blinked in a few weeks from now. Most of the facilities are in the inverter, so we won’t have problem. 2021 is going to be a good one.
In terms of traffic facilitation what do you think will be the benefits of this new terminal, which is going to be opened in February?
Well, it is going to be a new experience for everybody and the facilities are new, and the passenger will travel seamlessly. At least you know that the AC will be working optimally because they are new. All the belts and everything definitely will be working optimally, so it is going to be a good experience. And we still have some art works that is being done and they are very beautiful sceneries, in fact when you are travelling you will feel at ease and love what you see.
There is no effective WiFi at the airport; availability of Internet is one key element that distinguishes an international airport these days. So is there any plan to energise a very effective one?
There is effective one already on ground. I want to assure you of that and it was done by the Ministry of Aviation. So as soon as you enter the terminal it will tell you FAAN Wi-Fi is on, then you just have to input few things, maybe your name and email. The only thing is that it logs you out every 30 minutes. That is what I use in my office, as soon as I get to the office I log in. So we have a very effective one at international and the one at domestic is ongoing.
Is your airport insured so that if there is damage of aircraft due to environmental issues, FAAN will pay?
All our airports are insured and it is one of the requirements for airport certification. So the MMA is certified, without insurance NCAA will not certify us. I don’t really know the details but I know that someone’s shop got burnt, that was like two, three years ago within the terminal and she was compensated that time. But I don’t really know the details of what the insurance covers but all the airports under FAAN are insured, it is a requirement.