The Federal Government’s decision to close the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja (NAIA) in order to repair its runway makes sense. Aviation safety watchers have, for some months, been troubled by the increasing dilapidation of the runway. The Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, said the airport would be closed for six weeks, from March 6, to enable the government carry out comprehensive renovation and upgrading of the runway to international civil aviation standards.
The NAIA runway was commissioned in 1982 and was expected to last 20 years. Thus, it has outlived its lifespan by 14 years. The logical question would be: why? But, no one is asking because we know the nation’s records when it concerns maintenance of public facilities and infrastructure. We probably have the worst record in the world.
Other questions arose about the runway repairs when the minister invited civil aviation stakeholders for a forum. When the minister stressed how the government would rather lose billions of dollars in revenue than risk lives, Alhaji Mohammed Tukur, former general secretary of the Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON), wondered why the NAIA didn’t have a second runway which would have ruled out the need for the airport’s closure in the first place.
The government has promised that Abuja passengers would be diverted to the Kaduna International Airport from where they would be conveyed by bus to Abuja without charge. They would also have access to train and helicopter services, if they so choose. To calm the nerves of passengers worried about personal security, given the many incidents of kidnapping and other criminal activities on the route, Senator Sirika announced that government has concluded arrangements with the army and seven other arms of the security services, including aviation security, to ensure security and free flow of passengers between Abuja and Kaduna.
We are not surprised that the Airline Operators of Nigeria raised several objections to the government’s plans. The government is banking on the capacity of Kaduna International Airport to handle jumbo jets, which it does during Hajj operations.
But the AON is worried about Kaduna’s yet to be tested ability to cope with the huge number of passengers that would result, and has suggested the use of Lagos or Kano International Airports, which are used to handling such large numbers.
Again, the AON is strenuously arguing that the runway repairs be done at night between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and it has cited other famous international airports including British Gatwick Airport as a case study. But the government seems unconvinced, saying the work required to be done at NAIA is rather extensive and could not be done at night, an argument that appears not quite convincing. There was also the suggestion that the runway could be done in halves. Since the length is 3,900 metres, it was argued that the repairs be done first on 2,000 metres for four weeks, to enable smaller aircraft like B737s to use the other 200 metres to bring in passengers from Lagos and Kano.
But, it is apparent the government is set to shut down NAIA for six weeks. It is waving the frightening prospect of the Port Harcourt International Airport, which needed to be shut down for two and half years because its repairs were started too late.
It is obvious that the AON agrees with the Federal Government on the need to repair the runway. The organisation is, however, concerned about the safety and comfort of passengers for those six weeks. Its anxiety is understandable. The government must appreciate these concerns and do everything possible to quicken the completion of the repairs.
The work should not be limited to the runway. Aviation authorities should use the opportunity to ensure that all the safety equipment required for aviation safety are in place at the NAIA. Every necessary arrangement should also be made for the safe movement of passengers from the closest airports, such as the Kaduna International Airport and Minna Airport, into Abuja, during the period of the repairs. The cost of constructing a second runway during a period of recession may sound daunting but it is worthy of serious consideration.