Building on Existing Airport Infrastructure

To enable Nigeria vaunt of state-of-the-art facilities at airports, the ongoing infrastructural renewal must continue, writes Chinedu Eze

The aviation industry has achieved high level of safety in recent times, and air passengers have experienced peace of the mind within the period.

In the last eight years of the Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, there was no record of major air accident involving scheduled airlines. The last major accident that led to loss of lives was the tragic accident of Associated Aviation Flight 361, which crashed on take-off from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, on October 3, 2013, killing 16 out of 20 persons on board.

Effective regulation by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the commitment of Nigerian carriers to safety, must have ensured high safety standard in flight service in Nigeria. What also made it possible was that the runway at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, which at a time became death-trap was rehabilitated and new instrument landing systems were installed. Doppler weather radar and other equipment were installed to have accurate weather forecast and airfield lighting were also installed at the runways of different airports.

The First Effort

When the former Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika was appointed as Minister of State, Aviation in the first tenure of the Buhari administration, the first project he executed that endeared him to stakeholders in the industry was the rehabilitation of the runway at the nation’s second busiest airport, the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.

In late July 2016, South Africa Airways flight was damaged when it landed on the runway of the Abuja airport. The severe damage incurred prompted the airline to stop flying to the Federal Capital Territory. And that was not the first time the airline’s flight recorded damage on landing at the airport. Then, the runway was decrepit and precarious and many international and local aircraft were damaged on landing at the airport. It became an emergency situation. But the challenge was that the airport had one runway and if major rehabilitation would be done on the facility, the airport must be closed. It is not like the current situation where the international runway at the Lagos airport R18R is on rehabilitation and the second runway, known as the local runway, Runway 18L is providing services to all flights. Thanks to the former Minister of Aviation who installed state of the art airfield lighting at the facility last year. Now, flights can land and take off at any time at the airport.

At the Abuja Airport runway, the level of damage and the fact that there was indication that a major accident might happen to aircraft while landing, prompted the then minister to decide to comprehensively repair the runway. Criticism followed that decision because it was obvious that airlines, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) would lose billions of naira in revenue. The inconvenience could not be quantified. Federal government immediately designated Kaduna airport international an alternative to the Abuja airport. First, Kaduna facilities had to be upgraded. Many in the industry saw it as tough challenge but within weeks Kaduna Airport Safe Tower was upgraded, the runway was expanded and the terminal was rehabilitated, preparing the airport to take bigger aircraft and more passengers. Foreign airlines shunned the airport. It was only Ethiopian Airlines that agreed to operate to the Kaduna airport.

The Abuja runway rehabilitation was completed earlier than scheduled to the astonishment and satisfaction of many industry stakeholders. That earned Sirika a sobriquet, “Action Man”. Sirika extended that action to the total rehabilitation of the Enugu airport runway, which was also a death-trap for several years.

New Airport Terminals

Some aviation industry observers have at different fora wondered what the situation would have been if the new airport terminals in Abuja, Kano, Lagos, Port Harcourt were not built, as passenger traffic has been on steady growth, only interrupted by the COVID-19 hiccups. First, kudos should go to the Jonathan administration and to the former Minister of Aviation, Senator Stella Oduah who amidst criticism decided to build new terminals at the major airports instead of embarking on concessioning them. But the projects were at infant when the administration was succeeded by the Buhari’s administration.

The Buhari’s administration should be commended for its policy of continuity, which made it possible for those facilities to be completed. It could be recalled that passenger facilitation was taking place in a tent for arrival passengers in Port Harcourt, which made international rating agency to describe the Port Harcourt airport as one of the worst airports in the world. But looking back, the action and wait were worth it because Port Harcourt airport has one of the best terminal facilities in Nigeria today.

Although the initial cost of the projects was $500 million from China Exim bank and $100 million counterpart funds from the Nigerian government, but inside sources told THISDAY that the projects cost more than three times of the initial budget because of the weakening of the naira, the fact that the terminals did not have important facilities built into them in the initial plan and even the terminals in Lagos and Abuja were located in places that made it difficult for the  air traffic control at the control towers to clearly see aircraft at the ramp. So many facilities have to be added.

THISDAY learnt that the variations to remedy structural deficiencies and to expand the facilities cost as much as the initial budget of the projects.

A study on the infrastructural limitation of the airport, funded by the then Ministry of Transportation in 2018, disclosed that there were many facilities that must be relocated before the terminal would become operational.

The study, which was carried out by Arcaid, Architects and Environmental Consultants, revealed that the new airport terminals built at the cost of $600 million (N2.16 billion in 2018) were inadequate for targeted passenger traffic and lacked essential facilities.

The report of the studies made available to THISDAY, disclosed that to provide the facilities that were lacking in the terminals, government had to deploy over $500 million.  But today, all the terminals are functional and the terminal at the Abuja airport has encompassed ultra-modern car park with beautiful landscaping that the Abuja airport has become unarguably the best airport in Nigeria. Port Harcourt was the first to start operation, followed by Abuja, then Lagos and finally Kano. It has to be noted also that the Buhari administration met the international terminal of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu at foundation and built it to full blossom. Today, the facility is over 90 per cent competed, only short of some internal structures.

Special Economic Zones

Many Nigerians believe the Bola Tinubu led-federal government will promote business and investment and in the aviation industry this would be enhanced by what the Buhari administration did by designating five international airports Lagos, Abuja, Enugu Kano and Port Harcourtas Special Economic Zones.
The former minister said the benefits of special economic zones include more efficient and business-friendly trade environment with less bureaucratic red tape because of the associated fiscal incentives and packages; that it would attract world class international and local airlines/companies into the Nigeria aviation industry. There would be attraction of investment incentives, which include; investment policies and protection, general tax-based incentives, sector specific incentives and tariff-based incentives and export incentives. Other benefits include the fact that the special zones would attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and generate employment opportunities and human capital development, thus stimulating the overall improvement of the sector; improving the overall ease of doing business in Nigeria in line with federal government’s commitment towards national economic development.  The special economic zones would fasttracktheupgradeanddevelopmentofnewinfrastructure/facilitiesattheairports. It would also generate additional non-aeronautical source of revenue to the aviation industry and harness the social-economic benefits derivable from civil aviation.

Airspace Safety

Many infrastructural facilities that play critical role in safety of flight operation are not visible to the passengers and other airport users. Some of them are tucked in bush paths, airside of the airport premises and in the air. The Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) plays crucial role in safe landing and take-off of flights; so is the Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NIMET).

Shortly after the takeover of government in 2015, the administration installed the Controller-Pilot-Data-Link Communication (CPDLC), which allows pilots and air traffic controllers to communicate without voice, using data. The benefit is that when the network is saturated with many signals and voice communication is disrupted or incoherent, data come to play. It is more effective and relatively a modern method.

It also has to be noted that under the Buhari administration the federal government acquired two mobile towers, which were often used at the Abuja and Lagos airports, as the new terminals tend to interfere visually with the control tower. There were also the installation of Category 3 Instrument Landing System (ILS) in Abuja, Lagos, and the ones in Port Harcourt, Kano and Katsina have recently been completed. In fact, all the airports in Nigeria have at least Category 2 Instrument Landing System facilitated by the federal government.

The multilateration project for low flying aircraft in the Gulf of Guinea was over 90 per cent completed before the minister left office. The objective of the project is to capture flights below the radar level, like helicopters that provide shuttle service to oil and gas workers. THISDAY learnt that the control station located in Port Harcourt has undergone successful test-run and would soon be put into use. Also, earlier in the year, the federal government and Thales of France, which built the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) signed agreement for the total re-installation of the project. This means that all the obsolete facilities in the project would be replaced with modern ones and TRACON would be rebirthed.

“TRACON will be reconditioned and even the things that were not there when it was newly installed would be put into it new; so, it will serve as new equipment,” inside source explained to THISDAY.

The Buhari’s administration also installed a simulator for air traffic controllers at the Lagos airport for on-the-job training. This is to stop the encumbrances encountered by controllers when they teach and at the same time control flight traffic with the same consul.

The former Minister of Aviation also acquired aircraft for NAMA for the calibration of navigational aids. In January NAMA installed facilities to enhance Satellite Based Augmentation System (SBAS), which is a system that provides satellite navigation and communication to pilots. For this to be possible, the pilots flying in Nigeria and other parts of Africa will depend on the satellite provided by NIGCOMSAT. This was not just to cover Nigeria’s airspace but the whole of African airspace and improve precision for landing and take-off for pilots.

Industry observers believe that under Sirika as minister, the Buhari’s administration achieved so much in the area of infrastructure, but all these were eclipsed by what later took centre stage: the lope-sided recruitments and the Nigeria Air saga, which pushed the critical provision of airport infrastructure to the back stage.

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