Fly In The Sky Or Pie In The Sky?

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The planned closure of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja for repairs of the runway has elicited a torrent of comments. While many are overwhelmingly against it, the government seems to be going ahead with it. The government has issued a statement, saying the Abuja airport will be closed beginning from 12 a.m. Wednesday, 7th March, lasting for six weeks and air traffic will be re-routed to the Kaduna airport.
Undoubtedly, there are serious challenges facing the aviation industry. If not tackled strategically the problem will remain the way it is or erode further. However, runways all over the world are routinely maintained without shutting it down in its entirety. The decision to totally shut down the Abuja Airport for six weeks to do runway repairs beats my imagination. Unsurprisingly, several international airlines have stated that they will not operate the Kaduna route. Only one foreign airline has agreed to use the Kaduna International Airport.
The rejection of the Kaduna airport by foreign airlines as an alternative in the interim is understandable. The airport is below par in terms of meeting international or even national best practices. Similarly, the amount of inconveniences and economic loss to various stakeholders are worthy of note.
The Abuja Airport has two wings – the domestic/international wings. Why has the government chosen not to use the domestic wing for flights as it commences repairs on the international wing?
Given that the Abuja airport is the second busiest airport in Nigeria and situated in the nation’s capital city, totally closing it is tantamount to a massive revenue loss; especially, at a time the country is facing a severe recession. Hence, one is tempted to ask the following questions: Has anyone estimated what the closure of the Abuja airport would cost? How prepared, really, is the government for the pains which shutting down the airport will engender? Lastly, what guarantees are there that the repairs would be completed in six weeks as promised?
In all my travels, I haven’t heard of an international airport being totally shut for runway repairs. The price of such would be incalculable. Even in emergency situations where airports are partly shut (which usually takes a matter of hours), runway repairs disrupt operations that lead to huge financial losses. There are indeed, other acceptable best ways for runway repairs of busy airports which the government could have adopted.
The runway could be repaired without shutting down the airport as it is done in other climes mainly at less busy areas. At these times, traffic is usually low and it also reduces losses as well as inconveniences to people and businesses. For instance, the Mumbai, India Airport runway was shut for five hours twice a week for nine days for surface repairs last year. This still affected as many as 2,100 flights. Similarly in November of last year, the East Midlands Airport runway in the UK was closed during weekends for repairs to avoid major disruptions.
The diversion to the Kaduna Airport is not a good enough option and the N6 billion which has been spent so far to get the Kaduna airport ready may just turn out to be a waste. The cost of closing the Abuja Airport and moving equipment and facilities to Kaduna is even too enormous. It will also cause undue chaos and agony for thousands of people and businesses.
As it is, the Kaduna airport is very far from the FCT, and would engender countless discomfort and security risk to travellers, thereby discouraging and eventually denying the country the much needed revenue from tourism. Road transportation between Kaduna and Abuja is not only a stressful option; it is a dangerous one too as a lot of accidents occur on the Abuja-Kaduna axis.
Apart from the bad road going to Kaduna, armed robbery and kidnapping is on the rise. Would-be criminals now know that government is providing special buses for international travellers from Abuja to Kaduna. They know that these passengers have foreign exchange with them. Clearly, these travellers are in danger and are prime targets of criminals. This is apart from the fact that the necessary logistics and personnel are not available in the Kaduna airport.
Being the capital of Nigeria, methinks the Abuja airport is supposed to have more than one runway. The Abuja airport is situated a few kilometres away from the city centre. The kilometres consist of vast, and mostly unused and uninhabited land, particularly around the airport. Why can’t the government construct a new runway to supplement the existing one, and repair the old one afterwards? Other African countries such as Egypt and South Africa have so many runways, even in their local airports. It is indeed an ignominy for a country as rich as Nigeria that prides itself as the giant of Africa, to be arguing over just one runway in its capital city.
Like every other infrastructure (power, bridges, roads, etc) in Nigeria, the entire Abuja Airport architecture has been dilapidated and left to rot over time. Successive administrations have simply paid lip service to its maintenance, or simply ignored the responsibility of making the airport operable. For such a national revenue generator and the gateway in and out of the country, to be left until its current state shows how low we’ve sunk. It is indeed very sad that we are unashamedly where we are today because of corruption and our lack of maintenance culture.
Truth be told, it is very sad that the only runway at the Abuja Airport was left to disintegrate over many years without attention. Its designed lifespan reportedly expired 14 years ago and no one paid heed, thereby causing the current uproar, future inconveniences, and potential losses. An evaluation must immediately be commenced in finding out why the Abuja airport was left to decay to its current state that would call for its total closure. Also, the audit should also ascertain how often the runway should be resurfaced and why is there only one runway at the airport in the first instance.
The present government should always strive to plan ahead and make adequate preparations before making monumental decisions such as the closure of the airport in the nation’s capital. From all indications, we are going to lose a lot of airlines and they may never come back to Abuja. For those that do not know, it takes a lot of logistics for an airline to move its base from one location to another. Abuja as it were, is the centre of unity. The aviation industry is one of the elements that cements that unity.
Like every Nigerian, I would like to see adequate runway repair and an airport that reflects international standards. But this does not have to be at the expense of ‘stupidity’ where there is already an existing domestic section in Abuja that has been turned into the Billionaires’ Paradise, where private jets take off and land from. Are we kidding ourselves? Can International flights coming in not be diverted there, while the repair work on the other wing is taking place?
Whether this manner of repairs is good for us or not, only time will tell. But Nigerians better keep their eye on a get rich scheme at the expense of taxpayers. Whether in this dispensation or the next, we must be vigilant and keep a wary eye on the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika to ensure that this is a case of ‘fly in the sky’ and not one of pie in the sky!’

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