Cosmas Omegoh, Agatha Emeadi, Christy Anyanwu
August 29 is just six days away. Stakeholders in the aviation industry are waiting for the day with bated breath. They want it as soon as nature can allow.
In the next six days, international flights will resume at select Nigerian airports again after well over five months in limbo due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nigeria shut down its domestic and international airports on March 23 as a measure to curtail the spread of the novel Coronavirus disease. It allowed only evacuation flights and those ferrying essential supplies.
But now, operators of international flights have been asked to resume. Already, the operators have expressed readiness to return to their trade. They have been missing the skies just like the flying public.
Since the shutdown of the airports, the international wing of the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos has lost its hustle and bustle.
From the taxi park on approach to the facility, it is obvious the beehive of activities, which used to be a common feature in the area, was gone.
Ajayi Temitayo Joseph, a cab driver, who has been plying his trade at the airport for long told Sunday Sun that it had been an interesting job plying the route. But he lamented that the COVID-19 pandemic had messed up everything.
“We have no passengers anymore; we just come out to see small, small things to feed only ourselves and not even our families because there are no passengers. A lot of us drivers are now lazy because we have nothing to do.
“Before the pandemic, our job was very good; it was an interesting business, shuttling between international and local airports,” he said.
Just before our reporter entered the main lounge of the airport, it was obvious that there were virtually no activities going on. Only Chinese citizens were seen outside; all dressed in white PPEs as they waited to be checked in to return to their country.
At the Public Affairs office of FAAN, our reporter observed that a lot of work was going on in the premises as efforts were geared towards putting the appropriate things listed by the government in place. A staff of the agency, who pleaded anonymity said that the few passengers noticed were awaiting their evacuation flights.
“They are not for the regular flight you knew. The people you are seeing are returning to their countries. They came before COVID-19 and for one reason or the other they were trapped here.
“People have not been coming to work; it was even this week that a few of us came around. What would you come to do? Nothing! There is lockdown.”
Works were seen earnestly in progress as a contractor working for FAAN continued building a 192m ‘Donbalon Shelter’ raised with normal poles to protect passengers from both rain and sun while observing the COVID-19 protocols.
The site engineer who pleaded anonymity said that “FAAN contacted us to build a ‘192 meter Donbalon Shelter’ to protect passengers who used to walk into the airport directly from their cars before the pandemic. Now, with this shelter, it protects the passengers and airport officials as they physically distance themselves from one another; they now have a protective shelf where they would queue up without the rain or sun disturbing them while they wait for their turns as COVID-19 protocols might take some seconds.
On the first floor of the airport building, two engineers, one taking care of the cooling system at the airport and the second attending to the lighting system told Sunday Sun that they were happy resuming on the August 29.
“Since March, we have not been around. I’m happy that we are here; that means all of us around will do the work and share the responsibility.
“There will be division of labour, but very few hands have been available doing the work since the lockdown because they didn’t want too many people in the office. Even if when are starting there will be no crowd outside.
“Things are not going to be the same again even after the lockdown. Even if you are a minister, your entourage would stay outside; only the person travelling is expected to come inside the airport lounge. That is to ensure that the main lounge is not packed full as it used to be.”
Close to the office of a cleaning contractor at the airport, five ladies dressed in yellow polo T-Shirts and black skirts, staff of the company, were seen.
“We come to work everyday even in the heat of the lockdown because we have to tidy up the airport. If not, this place would have been a dirty place, but you could see that everywhere is still sparkling.
“We are redoubling our efforts now that the airport is fully opening on August 29, because we need to wash many places.
“Even in your house when you close some parts of it for too long, everything inside it would be dirty.
“From Monday we will start cleaning those areas. We have about five to six cleaners here at the airport taking care of different sections.”
An official of the Nigerian Drug, Law and Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) who asked for anonymity told our reporter that “we are very glad to see ourselves as workers in the same community come August 29.
“In the last four-five months of the lock down, so many people have been at home and have not seen one another, therefore, it is a welcome development.”
He also said that it was important for the international flights to begin operations again because the long closure had affected the economy of the country.
He noted that some countries like USA, Germany, China and UAE that have opened their airports even though not to all, but some selected countries.
He added that people were taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic and evacuation flights to peddle drugs to other countries; but their duty as NDLEA official at the airport is to make sure drugs do not leave Nigeria to other parts of the world, and vice versa.
He also said that even while the lockdown persisted, their duty calls for 24hours services and that was how two drug offenders were apprehended on evacuation flights.
One was arrested with 2kg of drugs while travelling to Dubai while the other was arrested with 3kg of drugs while on his way to London.
At Ethiopia Airways counter, some passengers were getting set for evacuation to China. Some of their pilots and ground crew members and those of Kenya airlines were seen supervising operations.
One of the airlines officials on ground told Sunday Sun that “at NCAA, we have filed all our documents; we are waiting for them to give us approval. If they give us approval before that August 29, or 30 – because they are not going to give everybody approval at the same time – the flights will be alternated. Meaning that if Ethiopian Airline flies today, we will not fly tomorrow, another set of airlines will fly; then, we will fly next day. They want to try that for now and watch. We have not been approved. The approval is on August 29.
“The passengers you see here are for evacuation flights. Everybody was asked to send the guideline given to us which we have to meet; for now, I’m not sure any airline has met it, except maybe the local ones.
“For flights that have been operating for a long time they want a restart; that’s why they requested for those documents.”
Also at Air France counter, passengers were seen waiting for their evacuation to Angola.
The passengers were unwilling to talk as they were afraid they might contract COVID-19 as they move away.
On Monday, August 17, Nigeria’s Aviation Minister, Mr Hadi Sirika broke the good news as he announced that international flights would commence on August 29.
He, however, said that the physical distancing, wearing of masks, washing of hands, temperature taking, and other COVID-19 protocols would continue to be observed.
While explaining that the international flight resumption procedure would be similar to that of the domestic flights, he said the operations would only be allowed at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) in Lagos and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja.
“In the beginning, there will be four flights into Lagos and four flights into Abuja daily, we will give further details on that in due course,” the minister said.
We are ready –Aviation operators
While most of the regulatory bodies like the NIMET, FAAN, NAMA declined to comment on their readiness for the resumption, a source at the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) said that the agency is ready.
“We are ready as a regulatory body to work while taking all the precautionary measures as expected and as we have been acting since the resumption of the local flights. All the protocols would be adhered to.”
In the same vein, Mrs Ime Victor-Ekpo, chairman, Corporate Social Responsibility, National Association of Travel Agencies in Nigeria (NANTA) said that the restart of foreign airlines was also going to be a gradual process as the airlines would not want to start and shut down again.
While noting that Lufthansa, British Airways, Emirates and a few others were ready to start off on September 1, she said some others are pushing theirs to October because they have to be very ready as well.
“We are already; we are prepared; we have been on zoom meeting, educating our people on the way forward. We have been in webinar with almost all the airlines, and they have confirmed their preparedness to fly the world again. NANTA members also are ready to start work and like you know, it is going to be a gradual process because the airlines would not want to start and shut down again. Only countries ready to receive Nigerians would also be opened to.”
Similarly, Mr Yinka Folami, the vice president, NANTA (Lagos zone), said his members had been adequately educated on what their responsibilities would be during the new normal era.
“We are the first line of contact with the travelling public and, therefore, there have been trainings on airport, boarding, inflight, destination, and restrictions protocols are.”
Foreign airline operators
Also expressing optimism of resuming operations were some of the foreign airlines.
For instance, an official of Ethiopia Airline who pleaded anonymity said: “Yes, we are prepared to fly.
“But we are yet to get clarification from our head office in Ethiopia. But we have been waiting for the reopening of the airport; so far we are operating in Cotonou, Lome; those places that are open; we are operating normal flights there.”
Also, officials of Emirates Airline said that it was ready for operations, having rolled out various safety measures.
“Emirates has unveiled multi-faceted measures for employee and customer care at every step of the travel journey, redefining safety and hygiene standards on board and on the ground. The new measures took effect with the resumption of regularly scheduled passenger flights to nine destinations,” Adel Al Redha, Emirates’ chief operating officer, said.