By Elder Gbenga Olowo
Following the decision and determination by the Federal Government to proceed with the closure of Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja to flight operations for a period of Six (6) weeks from March 8 to April 19, 2017 so as to conduct emergency repairs on the runway, Aviation Round Table (ART) is hereby compelled to take a holistic assessment of the decision and critically appraise the safety, security and economic implications of such a serious decision to Nigeria and Nigerians.
For the purpose of our assessment and as key stakeholders and custodians of the legacy of fairness, truth and integrity in addressing safety critical issues in the sector, we need to ask the salient question; “How did we get here?” The Abuja Runway was originally meant to last for 20 years.
However, on the balance of probability of the fact that it was underutilized judging from the number of landings on the runway, its utilization was further stretched by an additional 14 years leading to the current deplorable condition and the attendant grave safety implications as evidenced by several near fatal incidents that have occurred as a result of the bad condition of the runway.
This could only have happened due to the fact that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), which is responsible for conducting safety oversight of the sector, was docile and failed completely in ensuring that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) religiously complies with the Runway Maintenance Programme for NAIA, which is an operational safety requirement.
The failure of FAAN to strictly follow the Runway Maintenance Programme and conduct regular repairs and rehabilitation of the runway as at when due coupled with the lethargic oversight of NCAA have effectively contributed in bringing the situation to where it is today.
The decision as to whether a runway should be closed or not rests within the purview of NCAA as provided for in the Act establishing the Regulatory Agency and not the Executive arm of government. Unfortunately, constant political interference by the Executive arm of government, the Ministry, continues to usurp the role of NCAA and has hampered its effectiveness especially the current Director General.
We therefore challenge the NCAA to be alive to its responsibility of safety oversight by conducting a thorough assessment of the status of all the runways at the various airports in the country in an effort to correct the problems immediately and give each of them a clean bill of health in order to forestall a reoccurrence of the Abuja saga.
Closure of NAIA Runway no doubt has serious safety, security and cost implications. Local and international passengers will have to face the great inconvenience of travelling by road from Kaduna to Abuja amidst several security uncertainties. Airlines, service providers, employees and the national economy will all be negatively impacted by the closure.
In view of the pains and untold hardships the closure will inevitably bring with it, we are concerned and sincerely hope that the project will be completed on schedule within the stipulated six weeks in order to reduce the pains, burden and costs to the people of Nigeria, the economy and the international community who do business in Nigeria.
Judging from the proviso given by the Managing Director of Julius Berger to the House of Senate that the project will be completed on schedule: “ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL,” ART is highly uncomfortable with such a conditional statement and seriously doubt that the project will be completed on schedule to once again allow for flight operations within the stated time frame. Our submission is that it is of outmost importance and highly desirable for Julius Berger to be compelled to issue a Performance Guarantee rather than hide under a blanket condition.
Furthermore, government needs to ensure that movement and facilitation of passengers between Abuja and Kaduna is clear and unambiguous in the interest of safety and security. The protection of airline officials and their assets should equally be a top priority. Moreover, the huge funds currently being committed into other sectors all in the name of using Kaduna Airport as an alternative could have been saved and better utilized in the aviation sector if only those responsible for maintaining the runway had been more proactive from the outset.
In the light of the closure however, Airline Operators can take advantage of the situation by increasing their flights into Kaduna from Lagos and other major cities around the country. Until recently, there were 14 international airlines operating about 70 weekly flights to Abuja. With the withdrawal of Emirates, Delta & Kenya Airways from the route, the weekly flights by the remaining airlines will now be about 55 flights weekly.
Assuming that each inbound and outbound flight has 100 passengers, conservatively there would be 5500 passengers inbound and 5500 as outbound or 11,000 passengers to and from Abuja via Kaduna weekly or about 1600 inbound, & outbound passengers daily. Conservatively, these would require about 20 flights from our domestic airlines if they would be encouraged & reasonably develop capacity to take advantage of this opportunity which d closure of Abuja is likely to create for them. Moreover, the closure will give helicopter operators an opportunity to operate commuter services between Abuja and Kaduna.
ART has learnt that out of the 3.6km runway at NAIA, only 2.4km is currently available. This therefore makes it unsafe and impracticable to divide the runway into two and still continue to operate on one section while work proceeds on the other section. Also, the call for a second runway at NAIA is unnecessary at this time in view of the fact that the current runway is underutilized.
For instance, Gatwick is a single runway airport that began commercial operations since 1933 and has never been closed in 84 years. The Runway length is 3.3km as against that of NAIA which is 3.6km. Between April 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015 alone, Gatwick had a total of 271,071 Aircraft movements comprising 135,536 departures/takeoff and 135,535 arrivals/landings.
FAAN should therefore ensure that it develops a Runway Maintenance Programme approved by NCAA if none is currently available. NCAA on the other hand must through regular oversight, ensure FAAN’s compliance with approved Runway Maintenance Programme. Furthermore, the Runway Maintenance Programme must be factored on periodic number of landings rather than on the age of the runway. Finally, Periodic Runway Maintenance Programme would make repairs & maintenance possible if the Runway Maintenance Programme is regularly implemented.