On the planned closure of Abuja airport

Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja

Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja

The Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, due to be shut down on March 8, 2017, for six weeks, to enable some repair work on its runway is certainly far from being an ideal airport for the capital of a nation like Nigeria.

The facilities are hardly world-class and the terminal building is nothing compared to what obtains in smaller or even less endowed countries. So, any attempt to upgrade it technically or aesthetically should not generate unnecessary controversy.

Runways the world over are routinely resurfaced without much fuss but the decision to close the Abuja Airport totally for six weeks to do runway repairs beats all reason.

The Federal Government should therefore reconsider the decision, find a better way to do the repair in order to avoid damaging the city’s economy and exposing air travellers to avoidable danger as there are serious security and logistical challenges that have to be faced.

Also, the rejection of the Kaduna airport by foreign airlines as an alternative in the interim is understandable. The great inconveniences and economic loss to various stakeholders are worthy of note and the runway could be resurfaced without shutting down the airport as it is done in other climes.

The question must be asked: How prepared, really, is the Nigerian government for the pains which shutting down Abuja airport may engender, given that this is the nation’s capital city and second busiest airport in Nigeria, especially, at a time the country is facing a crushing recession? Also, what guarantees are there that the job would be completed in six weeks?

The main contractor, Julius Berger, has even hinted that completion would depend on the fulfillment of their obligations by other stakeholders. Is this possible in a system where things hardly go as planned? The Senate of the Federal Republic has tried and failed to stop the airport closure. So has the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE), which also initially opposed the closure but later recanted. Indeed, the NSE’s option of what it calls segmented approach for the airport repairs, which the Senate also bought into, should be thoroughly looked into.

The argument that the procedure involved in the repair is challenging and risky, again, shows a certain lack of full knowledge of the technicalities involved. Around the world, airport runways are resurfaced without outright closure of the airport as being scheduled for the Abuja Airport.

There are indeed, acceptable best ways for resurfacing the runways of busy airports which the Federal Government ought to adopt.

Even in emergency situations, which take a matter of hours, runway repairs of necessity must disrupt operations and lead to huge financial losses. And it is for this same reason that it is unheard of that any international airport anywhere in the world is totally shut down for weeks for runway repairs. The cost of such would be incalculable. Hence, resurfacing of airport runways is done mainly at night or at weekends, when traffic is low, to reduce losses as well as inconveniences to people and businesses.

For instance, in November 2016, the East Midlands Airport runway in the United Kingdom was closed during weekends for resurfacing to avoid major disruptions. Last year also, the Mumbai, India Airport runway was shut for five hours twice a week for nine days for surface repairs. That still affected as many as 2,100 flights.

Also, in May 2015, the London City Airport was forced to close its only runway for emergency repairs. Flights resumed mid-day the same day after thousands of passengers were stranded due to flight cancellations. These are just a few examples of how to resurface airport runways and minimize the losses.

Has anyone estimated what the closure of Abuja airport would cost?
Certainly, doing so is an invitation to chaos and agony for thousands of people and businesses. The planned diversion to the Kaduna Airport is not good enough and the N6 billion which is to be spent to get Kaduna ready may turn out a waste.

The cost of closing the Abuja Airport runway and moving equipment and facilities to Kaduna is even too enormous. The international airlines cannot be blamed if they refuse to use Kaduna Airport, at least for safety reasons:

Road transportation between Kaduna and Abuja is not only a stressful option, it is dangerous as a lot of accidents occur on that road. Hotels and safety of passengers will cost a fortune.

Above all, it is a shame that the only runway at the Abuja Airport was left to disintegrate over many years without attention. Its designed lifespan reportedly expired 14 years ago and no one paid heed, thereby causing this embarrassment and potential losses. An audit must be done to find out why it was left to decay to the level that would call for a total closure of the airport, how often should a runway be resurfaced and why there is, till date, only one runway at the airport in the first place!

It is to Nigeria’s eternal shame that, like every other infrastructure (roads, bridges, power) in this country, the entire Abuja Airport (runway, terminal building and all) is nothing more than a metaphor for a peculiar dementia which makes a nation sit idly by and watch herself rot away.

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