By Louis Ibah
On March 8, 2017, a Boeing 787 aircraft, operated by Ethiopian Airline with 50 passengers onboard, landed at the Kaduna International Airport at about 11.30am to mark its official inauguration for international flight operations following the closure of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA) Abuja for six weeks to allow the repairs of the spoilt runway. The closure meant that the local and international flights, that hitherto flew into Abuja Airport, now have to be diverted to the Kaduna Airport. As part of efforts to facilitate their operation, the Federal Government had put in place framework for transportation of passengers from Kaduna to Abuja, a journey of about two hours.
But for hundreds of passengers, the ground handling firms and airlines now operating from Kaduna, this temporary arrangement is coming with its own challenges.
For instance, some of those passengers complained of the inconveniences and loss of several man hours associated with the two-hour shuttle shuttle by either buses or rail transport between the Kaduna and Abuja airports. Airline owners and ground handling firms are also lamenting the huge logistical cost (about N1billion) in moving heavy equipment and personnel from Abuja to Kaduna to facilitate smooth business operations. And the chances of recouping such investments are even so slim, given that, except for Ethiopian Airline that has agreed to fly into the airport, the rest of the foreign airlines whose entry would have bolstered revenue generation have all backed out.
People who jettison travelling by rail, road or water and opt to go by air have at the back of their mind not only the speed associated with air travel but also the comfort. Sadly, for passengers traveling to the Kaduna Airport there is only the speed of the aircraft to enjoy as what could have come as comfort is lost in a journey to the airport that often takes more than two to three hours with a heavy toll on passengers health.
“One of the challenges faced by passengers is with the movements between the Abuja and Kaduna airports with Chisco Motors,” said Chukwuemeka Obi, a passenger whom Daily Sun met at the Kaduna Airport.
“I feel terribly sick each time I have to do this trip by these free buses from Kaduna airport to Abuja airport. The bus drivers would never agree to drop you on the road even when you get to your terminal point. They are under instructions to take you from the Kaduna airport to the Abuja airport terminal and from there you now have to take a taxi back to Abuja. It is a double journey. You make a 50 minutes trip by air from Lagos to Kaduna Airport and then moving from Kaduna Airport to Abuja Airport could take you another three and half hours. Why not drop people whenever they want to alight? The arrangement is sickening,” Obi added.
Government had also made an arrangement with the Nigerian Railway Corporation to provide free tickets for air passengers to transit from Kaduna to Abuja by train. The two hours and fifteen minutes ride takes off from the Idu Railway Station in Abuja to Rigasa Railway Station in Kaduna. But even at that, most passengers are complaining that the train frequencies are insufficient, just as their arrival and departure times do not align properly with those of the airlines.
“I like the train services, very neat, very comfortable, and it is even more convenient than traveling by road,” said a passenger who identified himself as Emmanuel.
“But the problem is that they are not very regular. It is very hard to schedule your flight itinerary to align with those of the trains. You can’t say once I get to Kaduna I will get a train to Abuja. No, it doesn’t work that way. If you come in late at night into Kaduna, you may not find a train to take you back to Abuja that same night. It has happened to me repeatedly. And for someone that prefers the train to the long hours of being driven from Kaduna airport back to Abuja airport by busses, that is really a great source of inconvenience,” he added.
In the first two days of the commencement of the use of the Kaduna Airport, it was the absence of banks, e-transaction platforms and mobile communication network facilities that had posed as the greatest source of challenge to passengers, airline owners and other business operators. When Daily Sun visited the Kaduna Airport over the weekend, that challenge appears to have been resolved with airline owners now making available PoS at their payment and check-in counters to allow for e-transactions by passengers who find it cumbersome or risky carrying physical cash around. A visit to the Kaduna Airport, however, reveals that a lot of work still needs to be done to bring the facility to the required standard of an international airport. Passenger facilitation is not smooth, while the waiting hall is rather too small to cope with the large passenger traffic it is currently handling. Daily Sun observed that construction work had not stopped even in the permanent terminal currently being used, while at the new extension terminal is nowhere 20 per cent completed. For an airport designed for international operations, it was a sorry sight to see loads of refuse, filth and dirt and other materials discarded by contractors littered all over the airport. A lot of passengers, therefore, prefer to first get their boarding passes and then come out and wait outside the airport terminal building until such a time when boarding announcements are made for their flights before they decide to enter into the airport terminal.
On the part of the government, the repair of the Abuja airport runway is to cost an estimated N5.8billion. Had the runway been fixed about three years ago when the suggestion was first mooted, the government could have spent less than that figure- about N1.6billion.
But as earlier stated, it is not only the government that would be losing. With only Ethiopian Airlines agreeing to fly into Kaduna Airport out of the many foreign airlines that were flying into the Abuja Airport, industry sources told Daily Sun that about N20billion would be lost by various businesses rendering ancillary services. Such revenue earning businesses include the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA); Federal Airports Authority at Nigeria (FAAN); Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA); Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET). These government agencies all benefit from a five per cent tax collected on each ticket purchased by passengers on either local or international flights. And that is the first lesson that the government should learn; never to delay taking actions that could assist halt revenue losses as being currently experienced with the shutdown of the Abuja Airport. Aside government agencies, other operators like car hire and airport taxis; catering services; ground handling companies like Nahco, and Sahcol; and the hotels in Abuja would also be losing revenue following an expected drop in local and international seminars, conferences and exhibitions until such a time when direct flights is resumed from cities across the world and within the country into the Federal Capital Territory.
Experts estimate that the aviation industry would lose about N20billion in the six-week period in which the Abuja Airport would remain shut. And that is aside the over N1.1billion that the Federal Government is investing in infrastructure upgrade and providing logistics and security at the Kaduna Airport.A former Director General/CEO of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr. Harold Demuren, told Daily Sun that it was a faulty decision to construct only one runway for the Abuja Airport, a trend that made the shutdown of the airport inevitable to allow for the repair of that runway. The Lagos Airport, for instance, has two runways. “The best solution to this is that Abuja Airport needs a second runway. The Federal Government and FAAN should put their acts together and get a second runway for Abuja Airport,” Demuren said.
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 by 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.
This could only have happened due to the fact that the 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 comply 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 when due, coupled with the lethargic oversight of NCAA, had effectively contributed in bringing the situation at the Abuja runway to a state where it had to be shut down completely.
President of the Nigerian Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), Mr. Bankole Bernard, said, rather than dwelling on the shortcomings of the diversion of flights from Abuja Airport to Kaduna Airport, Nigerian businesses should rather look at the business prospects it has created for them.
For instance, he said a lot of travel agents in the northern part of the country were now earning better revenue selling not just air tickets but tourism to international passengers who come to Kaduna through Ethiopian Airline.
“Tourism is about exploring different areas and seeing what new things it offers. I want to say that a lot of our members in the northern part of the country have been doing very well now because they are packaging tourism, selling hotels and tourist sites, the golf course in Kaduna to foreigners,” Bankole said.
“So it is an opportunity in disguise because NANTA members are now beginning to think outside the box and they are benefiting from the closure of the Abuja airport,” he added.
The President of Aviation Round Table (ART), Mr. Gabriel Olowo, also said 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 and Kenya Airways from the route, the weekly flights by the remaining airlines will now be about 55 flights weekly.
Olowo said assuming that each inbound and outbound flight had 100 passengers, conservatively, there would be 5,500 passengers inbound and 5,500 as outbound or 11,000 passengers to and from Abuja via Kaduna weekly or about 1, 600 inbound and outbound passengers daily.
“Conservatively, these would require about 20 flights from our domestic airlines if they would be encouraged and reasonably develop capacity to take advantage of this opportunity which the closure of Abuja is likely to create for them,” Olowo said. “Moreover, the closure will give helicopter operators an opportunity to operate commuter services between Abuja and Kaduna if the federal government would permit them,” Olowo added.
Above all FAAN should therefore ensure that it develops a Runway Maintenance Programme (RMP) approved by the NCAA if none is currently available. The 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 and maintenance possible if the Runway Maintenance Programme is regularly implemented.