Ranked as the worst airport in the world, according to a survey carried out by the global travel rating agency, Sleeping in Airports in 2015, the Port Harcourt International Airport in Rivers State has not fared any better since that report was published.
In fact in 2015, its notoriety for failing infrastructure and services led to one of the most tragic air crashes in Nigeria involving hundreds of school children from the Loyola Jesuit College who were returning from Abuja for holidays aboard a Sosoliso MD aircraft.
Although, through the assistance of a ChineseExim Bank loan of about $500million (shared with three other airports) a new terminal building has been erected at the airport in Port Harcourt to ease the trauma experienced by passengers at the old and dilapidated terminal, the poor state of its runway has continued to give the best pilots flying into the garden city the worst nightmare in over two decades.
Indeed, rather than improve, the Port Harcourt airport runway has continued to decay further thereby threatening the safety of pilots and passengers, especially when landing on rainy hours any day.
“Pilots in Nigeria complain very often about the surface of Port Harcourt Airport runway that is always waterlogged and doesn’t drain properly whenever it rains to allow for smooth landing because there are depressions that allow water to collect,” said Captain Victor Egonu, Chief Pilot for Air Peace Airline.
Egonu who called to question the surface friction integrity of the Port Harcourt airport runway said pilots on scheduled flights are sometimes forced to delay landing at the airport for minutes during rainfall owing to the possibility of skidding off the runway.
“Whenever I fly into Port Harcourt on rainy days my heart is always in my mouth; I fear for the worse because I have had the misfortune of being involved in a near-crash incident on two occasions while the aircraft I was flying was landing at the airport runway,” said Maxwell Nda, a travel agent based in Port Harcourt.
Accidents and near crash incidents
Although, most Nigerians would still remember the December 10, 2005, Sosoliso MD 82 aircraft which crashed at Port Harcourt airport killing 107 persons including many school children, the Port Harcourt Airport had had some more serious ‘near-crash’ and life threatening incidences than any other airport in Nigeria in recent years
The most notable incidences documented in recent history included the April 2008 case involving a Virgin Nigeria Boeing 737-300, operating from Lagos to Douala with 172 passengers including the Nigeria’s Under 20 female soccer team. The pilot had diverted to Port Harcourt due to hydraulic problems but while trying to land encountered problems on the runway resulting its overshooting the runway with minor injuries to three passengers on-board the aircraft.
Similarly, in July 2008 a Chanchangi Boeing 737-200 overran the Port Harcourt Airport runway while landing on its wet surface as it was in drizzling with gusting winds and two passengers on-board were left with minor injuries.
In another ugly incident in December of 2008, an Arik Air Boeing 737-700, while taking off from the airport suffered a terrible bird strike but safely returned to land.
Shortly after that and precisely on February 20, 2018, a Dana Air MacDonald Douglas (MD) 83 aircraft while landing at the Port Harcourt airport in poor weather conditions overran the runway ending up in a thick bush with the aircraft severely damaged beyond repairs, although there was no injury on any passenger.
Another ugly episode recorded on the port Harcourt airport running happened on January 23, 2019, when a Nigeria Dornier 328-100 aircraft veered off the Port Harcourt runway during landing and into the grass surrounding the runway but there were no injuries to passengers.
Perhaps what may have raised some more curiosity among aviation stakeholders would be the incident of June 22, 2019 when an Air Peace Boeing 737-500, while landing during rains skidded off the wet runway into the bush with no injuries to passengers.
Amidst these near crash incidences, many have been querying the safety standards in use at the Port Harcourt airport, when a herd of cows strayed into the airport premises and prevented a international flight operated by Air France from landing on schedule.
One of the major reasons the above mentioned cases are of great concern to stakeholders borders more on the cost of fixing damaged aircraft parts which often run into millions of Naira and which many of the for the operators often find difficult to handle. A spokesman for one of the airlines involved in one of the near-crash incident at the PHIA, told Daily Sun the airline spent about $1million (about N350miilion) on repairs following an incident at the airport.
In the case of Dana Air, the operators lost the MD-83 aircraft as it was damaged beyond repairs. The cost of the aircraft often leased from the United States of America is estimated at $5-10million. And there are strong possibilities of Air Peace also losing its Boeing 737 aircraft to the Port Harcourt incident.
Those familiar with air crash history especially accident investigators say pilots are usually the first set of aviators to notice signs of an impending tragedy on an aircraft or an airport. And for the Port Harcourt International Airport, Nigerian pilots have continued to warn regulators that all is not well with Port Harcourt Airport, stressing their experiences are clear signals of an imminent breach of safety if nothing is done speedily to fix the rot at the runway.
The way out
There is no doubt that the Port Harcourt International Airport (PHIA) runway, like some other runways in Nigeria is suffering from overuse and poor maintenance. Indeed, the PHIA comes third in ranking after the Lagos and Abuja airports in terms of aircraft and passenger traffic. Its the major international airport that services the oil-rich Niger Delta with its multinational oil and gas firms. Aside domestic flights, the PHIA also handles international flights for Air France/KLM, German Lufthansa, and Chronos Air from equatorial Guinea. And this tells a story of the constant wear and tear on the facilities at the PHIA. But airline operators would however tell a different story about its neglect, as the Lagos and Abuja airports understandably continues to enjoy huge government allocations for infrastructure upgrades.
For the PHIA, there is no way to excuse it’s managers of negligence and dereliction of duty if a critical infrastructure for safe flight operations like the runway is allowed to collect water (and not drain properly) as is the standard expected by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), for airports all over the world.
However, while investigating the Dana Air MD-83 aircraft crash of February 2018, the Commissioner/CEO of the Nigerian Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB), Mr. Akin Olateru, in his report noted the possibility of the rubbers peeling off aircraft tyres landing and taking off from the runway thereby impeding the friction for firm grip on the runway on landing particularly during an heavy downpour at the PHIA.
In his safety recommendations, Olateru called on the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) conducts a ‘runway friction tests’ on the PHIA. The AIB report said the “de-rubberisation” – removal of all build-up of rubber on the runway remains critical to forestalling an imminent air accident at the PHIA.
Spokeswoman for the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Mrs. Henrietta Yakubu, however said the agency has commenced an intensive re-assessment of runways at the nation’s airports to stave off potential accidents on the runways.
“It is therefore with the intention to increase the friction coefficient levels of our runways in accordance with NCAA advisory circular that the Authority is embarking on this exercise across the nation’s airports as the rain is becoming very heavy and unpredictable,” Yakubu said.
She explained that although, the regular friction measurement for Port Harcourt International Airport was conducted in March 2019 and the result falls within the minimum friction coefficient level, the airport however still witnessed a skidding incident recently involving an Air Peace aircraft.
“As a short term measure to boost passenger and aircraft safety at the Port Harcourt runway, the Authority just carried out a de- rubberisation exercise between June 15 to 22, 2019 to remove any contaminant,” Yakubu added.