By Louis Ibah
On Tuesday, April 18, 2017, the Federal Government reopened the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, to normal flight operations after a six-week closure.
The government had shut down the airport on March 8, 2017, to allow Julius Berger carry out rehabilitation work on the single runway of the airport, which had posed a threat to the safe landing and take-off of aircraft in the last one year.
The completion of the runway rehabilitation project at about N5.8 billion has no doubt elicited a lot of excitement and applause from most Nigerians given the ability of the contractors to deliver ahead of the government scheduled date of April 19, 2017. Also, the inconveniences associated with passengers having to travel to Abuja through the Kaduna International Airport has been eased or resolved with the Abuja airport now reopened. What is now of utmost concern to industry stakeholders is when the government will start the construction of the second runway of the Abuja airport.
Why rot in Abuja runway?
The Abuja airport was built between 1982 and 1989 and the runway was originally meant to last for 20 years. However, on the balance of probability of the fact that it was underutilised judging from the number of landings on the runway, its utilisation 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 that have occurred as a result of the bad condition of the runway.
This could only have happened due to the fact that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (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 complies with the Runway Maintenance Programme (RMP) for NAIA, which is an operational safety requirement. The failure of FAAN to strictly follow the RMP 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.
Need for second runway
Recall that the government had only opted for the total closure of the Abuja airport because of its single runway as opposed to the dual or multiple runways found in most international airports. For instance, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, has two runways.
If the Abuja airport had an alternate runway, what the government would have done would have been to go ahead with fixing the spoilt runway, while aircraft would continue to use the alternate and safer runway.
Most analysts had decried a situation where the Abuja airport, Nigeria’s second busiest airport after the Lagos international airport, could have been allowed by successive governments to operate a single runway for over 34 years. Its shutdown recently for the repair of the runway is estimated to have cost the industry an estimated N400 billion loss. Notable investors that made huge losses following the shutdown of the Abuja airport include, airlines, ground handling and careering firms, taxi drivers, FAAN, Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), NCAA, among others.
Such a loss coming at the time the country is under a recession is considered by many as avoidable if only the right thing had been done earlier.
Former Director General/CEO of NCAA, Dr. Harold Demuren, told Daily Sun in an interview that it was faulty to construct only one single runway for the Abuja airport, a trend he acknowledged had made the shutdown of the airport inevitable with Kaduna airport chosen as alternate airport.
“The best solution to this problem 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; let us make sure we do it now. That is the right thing to do; it is the best way to go,” he told Daily Sun.
Demuren’s position is corroborated by renowned aviation analyst and former President of the Aviation Round Table, Capt. Dele Ore, who told Daily Sun that it was very important the government took urgent steps to commence the construction of a second runway for the Abuja airport to save the country such embarrassment it just experienced by having to shut down a major international airport in the country for runway repairs.
Said Ore: “We must remind ourselves that never again must we get to a stage where a runway degenerates to such a stage where it is unsafe for use that we have to shut down a whole airport in Abuja.
“We must be reminded that what brought us to this is because the government failed to heed to expert advice that there is no other compromise than a second runway for the Abuja airport. Whether the second runway is going to be constructed across the existing one, or parallel to it, or perpendicular to it, there is need for a second runway for Abuja airport if we don’t want to embarrass ourselves,” Ore said.
Another analyst, Mr. Ken Osa, told Daily Sun that a second runway for Abuja airport was also imperative for various purposes outside serving as alternate if the number one runway is bad and has to be fixed.
“A second runway helps when there is an emergency. For a city as Abuja, it is too strategic not to have a second runway to serve in such emergency situations. There could be reason for a military aircraft to take off and what if the single runway is bad, what if another aircraft landed and developed fault and can’t be removed. In such a case, the military aircraft is hampered from doing its job under an emergency. What if it’s the President that needs to take off or land under an emergency?
“It happened some time with a Boeing 747 Saudi Air cargo flight in December 2013 when it developed a problem and blocked the entire Abuja airport runway and no flight was able to come in or go out. Traffic had to be diverted to Jos and Kaduna airport. So we need a second runway for Abuja airport urgently,” Osa added. The former Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Mr. Sule Ozenua, also said that the Abuja airport lacks the complete status of an international airport in contemporary times without a second runway.
“The unfortunate thing about Abuja closure is that we want to say Abuja is an international airport. As far as I am concerned and as the world knows, there is no international airport that will be operating with only one runway. And when you go back to the inception of Abuja airport construction, you will find out that the master plan of Abuja airport consists of two runways and one would have expected that less than five years after Abuja came into operation, the second runway should have been in operation. But since 1984, nothing has been done to ensure the construction of the second runway in Abuja. It is as if we all went to sleep,” Ozenua said.
In 2009 and 2010, there was massive debate on the plan to build a second runway at the NAIA, Abuja. Then, the contention over the planned second runway was the cost and it was the House of Representatives that finally scuttled the project. It was a bigger project as it was designed to land heavier aircraft like Airbus A380 with expanded taxiways and other facilities.
A former Minister of Aviation who also happened to have presided over the planned second runway, Babatunde Omotoba, told journalists about two years ago that, “the issue of that runway has become very clear to the whole country that a second runway is needed in Abuja because of what happened. We have two in Kano and Lagos and, of course, Abuja being the FCT and with our efforts at developing it as operational hub for West Africa, it sure needs a second runway.”
He explained further that, “the second runaway was conceived and designed to handle Airbus A380-800F with Category 3 Airfield Lighting (AFL). The length of the planned runway was 4.5 kilometers with a width span of 75 meters and its strip, which should be free from any obstacle on both sides should be 150 meters on the two sides.
“ The basic length of the runway is about 3.4 kilometers and because of the altitude of Abuja – about 1,000ft above Lagos – that will add about 267 meters to the runway and because of the temperature too, we used 35.6 degree centigrade to design the runway. When you have high temperature, it takes aircraft longer distance to stop; that added about 753 meters to the runway.
“That was how the designers arrived at 4.5 kilometers. The current runway we have was built in 1982 and that is 31 years old now (as at 2014). It was designed to last for 20 years, but it has exceeded its useful life and so we saw the need for a second runway. The second and the old one will have about 1.5 kilometer distance between them, for the 1.5 km, 1.5 by 1.4 km,” he added.
A second runway for the Abuja airport would certainly cost the government a lot of money to construct. If the rehabilitation of the existing one cost about N5.8 million, then a new runway could gulp more, maybe N30-N40 billion. But that huge sum, although hard to come by these days, has benefits that outweigh the investment in the long run.
Minister of State for Aviation, Mr. Hadi Sirika, is in full support of the idea of a second runway for the Abuja airport. Speaking at a breakfast meeting organised by the Aviation Round Table (ART) in Lagos recently, Sirika said there was no escape for the country from constructing another runway for the Abuja airport.
“I have been talking about the second runway for the Abuja airport since 1996 but nobody appears to have listened to me then,” Sirika said.
Ore said it was possible to get a second runway and recommended the following: “What we have learnt is that we have to embrace technology because without technology that runway resurfacing would not have been achieved under a six-week period. But with hi-tech, the job was so done and with very light maintenance we can keep the runway alive for 10 years.
“The truth is that this single runway could be disabled in the next 10 years, which could make it unusable for aircraft. We should commence the construction of the second runway immediately and I recommend that the same team and firm of Julius Berger that handled this runway job should be made to handle the second runway because they have now gained enough experience on the job,” Ore added.