Stakeholders Lament Frequent Runway Closures at Lagos, Abuja Airports

Chinedu Eze

Airline operators and other stakeholders in the aviation industry have condemned the frequent runway closure at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, saying that such closures have become major cause of delays and flight cancellations.

The stakeholders also said that major reason for the closures is the VIP movement, which is usually unannounced for security reasons, and because of the suddenness, airlines do not prepare for the closure and most often pilots are not told how long the closures would last.

Pilots who spoke to THISDAY said that what irks them is the frequency of the closure, noting that almost on daily basis and sometimes two times a day or more such closure happens; that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) merely notify air traffic controllers of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) who notify pilots without the process of issuing a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) through the Aeronautical Information Service (AIS) to the global aviation community.

Airline operators also said the frequent closures cost them huge resources because of fuel burn while waiting either on ground or in the airspace for the VIP movement.

In Nigeria VIP movement involves the movement of the President, the Vice President, and sometimes their wives, but there have been alleged abuse of the system. Senior government executives using any aircraft in the presidential fleet could be termed VIP movement and runway could be closed for such movement.

An official of FAAN explained to THISDAY that the agency does not usually close the runway per se but delay flights both the ones about to take off and the ones airborne until the VIP movement takes place so Air Traffic Controllers would just declare the airport sterile, which means no movement until the passage of the VIP.

“I don’t think they declare the airport closed. They just delay some flights until the passage of the VIP. The other day we were about to take off when our pilot told us there was VIP movement and we waited. We actually waited for long; over 30 minutes at the holding point before our flight took off. Yes, the problem is that it causes delays for travellers.  Even when that aircraft is airborne it has to wait. They will inform the pilots but no precision because you are not supposed to know the details about the movement for security reasons. So they don’t issue official NOTAM but the controllers will do radio communication,” he said.

The Chief Operating Officer of Green Africa, Obi Mbanuzuo, told THISDAY that the closure happened daily because if the President is not travelling, Vice President may be travelling or senior government official using aircraft from the Presidential fleet may be travelling.

Mbanuzuo explained how such delays cost airlines a lot of money because aircraft waiting on ground or in the air consume a lot of fuel. The amount of fuel burnt during the delays depends on the aircraft.

Citing example with the aircraft that is frequently used in Nigeria, the Boeing 737 Classic, he disclosed that ordinarily the aircraft could consume about five tons (about 6, 250 litres) of fuel flying from Lagos to Abuja and additional 30 minutes fuel would be added to it, which is about 1.5 tons in case the airport is sterilized (closed for VIP movement). Then there would be additional fuel for alternative airport in case of emergency. That is more fuel is added in case a situation arises that the aircraft has to leave for alternative airport if there is emergency. According to him, every airline chooses its alternative airport. Flying from Lagos to Abuja an airline could choose Ilorin as alternative airport or it could choose Port Harcourt. So the aircraft would carry additional fuel in case there is need to go to the alternative airport.

So it is five tons from Lagos to Abuja, 1.5 tons for diversion in case there is VIP movement, which bring the volume to 6.5 tons; then another five tons for alternative airport, which in total brings it to 11.5 tons (14, 500 litres).

“When you carry this volume of fuel it makes your aircraft fly heavy so you burn more fuel. The heavier the aircraft the more fuel it burns and this is huge loss to the airline. So it is like you are punished for carrying more fuel. So the VIP movement happens all the time. Recently we had to cancel a flight because of VIP movement. The flight was supposed to leave by 5:00 to daylight airport but there was VIP movement, which delayed for about an hour. When the airport was opened again we realised that we cannot make it; go to the airport and do a turnaround in time before the airport was closed for the day, so we cancelled the flight,” Mbanuzuo recalled.

Former Managing Director of NAMA, Captain FolaAkinkuotu, told THISDAY that FAAN has the sole management of the airports and provision of infrastructure but it is NAMA that can talk to pilots, while FAAN has the sole right to close the airports.

He said that FAAN has to advance information to NAMA to issue NOTAM but in the case of VIP movement, FAAN may not have such advanced information.

“ATC can issue temporary closure of the airport. They wont say when the closure would end but usually it is not long. So the ATC can tell pilots that the airport has become sterile,” he said.

Aviation expert and the Executive Secretary of Aviation Round Table (ART), Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), told THISDAY that, “No airport can be closed without a NOTAM at least a 24-hour warning. What can be closed with less warning is the runway (the landing surface). However, if the runway, which is the primary airport facility, is closed, it could be assumed by the users that the airport is closed if there is only one runway in the airport. I don’t believe any airport can be closed outside these without NOTAMS and outside the times specified in the Aeronautical Information Services (AIS) or the Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP).”

According to Ojikutu, “If ever such occurs, the responsible authorities are liable to be sued if any serious incident or accident arise from such negligence of function and oversight. In 2006, a Cargolux aircraft was cleared by the controller to land on a closed Runway 18R (Lagos airport) even though there had been a NOTAM Publication closing the runway. The aircraft crashed on the runway with obstructions still on it. The airline sued both NAMA and NCAA and got payment of about $6 million as compensation for damages.”

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