They say there’s no going back on the decision to close the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja for six weeks, starting March 8.
That’s what Minister of State, Ministry of Aviation, Hadi Sirika said and Minister of Transport Rotimi Amaechi has repeated it as well.
They have made it clear that even if chariots from heaven were going to arrive in Abuja from that date, they’ll have to use the Kaduna airport a place where, given its present state, toy drones will not be advised to use.
That adamant posture could be all right for the ministers and the few like them who have options. Their ministerial lives are nicely laid out for them in a tapestry of protocol.
There are people paid to arrange their trips, armed policemen to escort them with sirens, and porters waiting to carry their bags at departure and arrival. Some even have their shoes shined for them at public events.
We’re all, quite frankly, at the disposal of ministers.
Yet, it’s a different world out there for the estimated 7,000 passengers who use the Abuja airport everyday or even for people like me who use it less frequently. If the Ministry of Aviation will not back down regardless of the depth of the misery that we now face, will reason compel the ministers to take a second look?
Sirika has said if only we knew how bad the runway is, the risk each time every plane lands or takes off, we would not make the next trip. He has said that no Nigerian life, no life, is worth the risk of keeping the airport open after March 8 and is obviously determined to save us from ourselves.
The problem is that the minister is listening only to himself. Apart from the two runways at the Lagos airport, which are only a shade or two better than other runways across the country, there isn’t much difference in the risk we face daily wherever we’re landing at or taking off from.
Which means, in effect, that except if the minister is saying that Abuja lives are more important than Enugu lives, for example, we must close down all Nigerian airports by March 8 to start this runway repair business.
There is no question that Abuja needs a second runway or that the current runway needs repairs. The need has existed for at least 12 years but ministers have been too busy with their noses in the trough to bother.
The question is how can repairs be done with the least disruption to the lives of passengers and businesses that don’t have the options and luxury available to the ministers? How can the minister escape accusations that his overriding motive is to help himself to a good slice of the contract?
Julius Berger, the contractor, has said if it is allowed to carry out partial repairs, one portion at a time, it can do the repairs in 24 months, working only at night, without full closure of the airport. Why is that option not being explored for the nation’s second busiest airport which hosts an average 80 flights daily and processes tens of hundreds of travelling guests?
Ethiopia’s major airport has only one runway and that country’s airline, one of the largest in Africa, has 91 aircraft with 51 more on order. Yet, the country has never had to close down its airport even once for any repairs, minor or major.
Kenya’s main airport has only one runway while Kenya Airways has over 30 aircraft with 20 other airlines using the airport daily. The airport has never once closed for any repairs minor or major.
Ghana’s main airport, Kotoka International Airport, has only one runway. It has just finished refurbishing the runway and the taxiway and is currently improving services in the terminal building. That country did not have to close the airport even for one day to get the work done.
South Africa’s Jo’burg airport has two runways but the second was built only recently and while they had one, they kept it in use and serviceable without a fuss.
Why is our case different, always different?
Let’s even consider for one moment the whole business of having to travel over two hours by road to Kaduna for a 50-minute flight to Lagos, for example.
The approach radar at the Kaduna airport is obsolete. Former President Shehu Shagari commissioned that radar over 30 years ago and your guess is as good as mine if in its present state, that radar can land a kite safely.
Whereas the Abuja airport has a fuel dump for ten million litres of aviation fuel, the Kaduna airport can only take 500,000 litres, with only one major marketer, Conoil, operating there. The capacity of the Kaduna fuel dump is just about enough for maybe three international flights (Abuja currently hosts five or six) and enough to spare for one jerry can.
So, how does the minister intend to bridge this supply gap in four weeks?
And given the genuine security concerns about Kaduna, how can an airport, which currently handles only three flights daily, be upgraded to safely process thousands of passengers in such a short time?
The minister sees no point in asking the airlines what they think, much less listening to them because he thinks they’re too concerned about their own convenience and profit to care about passenger comfort and safety.
Well it’s a useless regulator that has helped to make the airlines the monsters they have become. But that is stretching the point. The minister is not even listening to staff in his own ministry, who, according to insiders, are offering sensible alternatives to a complete shutdown.
Nor is he open to examples from other parts of the world about what can be done to avoid this nonsense.
The Abuja-Kaduna rail track has been touted as potentially a major asset to move heavy cargo that cannot go by road, while passengers have been assured that armed escorts will provide covering for passenger shuttle services.
But the devil is in the detail. Where is the terminal for inbound cargo/passengers? Will the train/bus service go all the way from Kaduna to the Abuja airport that is under repairs or will there be drop-off points along the way?
What are the logistics for departing passengers outside Kaduna, keeping in mind that the Abuja-Kaduna railway is single track and the anxiety about safety in Rigassa, the current terminal at the Kaduna end of the train service? How will airlines process their passengers for safety and minimum comfort?
As for the current state of the Abuja-Kaduna road, that is a different matter completely. Sirika will have to line up all the gods from his village in Daura along the routes to help the armed escorts keep the roads safe.
Our capacity to invent problems and insist on solutions that defy common sense is incredible. The Sirika Solution is obviously our latest gift to the global aviation industry. Insanity.
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the Board of the Paris-based Global Editors Network