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Massive revenue loss looms over Abuja airport closure

Hadi Sirika Minister Aviation…begs for understanding

*Experts fault diversion of air traffic to Kaduna

*Minister meets stakeholders on Thursday

*Closure now shifted to 8th March

Ahead of the planned closure of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport runway, Abuja for repairs in February and March, there is a looming loss of revenue by the aviation sector. The date of closure has though been shifted to 8th March.

Concerned stakeholders have also faulted the alternative provisions that include diversion of traffic to Kaduna airport. To them, the said the move would bring much discomfort to air travellers and foreign airlines especially, forcing many to temporarily quit air travel to the northern part of the country.

With airlines and passengers quitting the region, revenue accruing to the regulatory agencies and ancillary services will drop drastically, making required operations further difficult.
The Abuja runway of 4000 metres-plus has been in a bad shape in the last couple of months and was in December 2016 pencilled for repair at the cost of N1billion. At least, three foreign airlines, including South African Airways, have had their wide-body aircraft damaged in the process of landing on the runway.

While the repair would last for at least six weeks, the Minister of State for Aviation announced that the runway would be closed and traffic diverted to Kaduna airport, from where buses will take passengers back to Abuja in a two-hour road journey.

The Chairman, Governing Board of the Nigerian Aviation Safety Initiative (NASI), Captain Dung Pam, said though temporary closure of the runway was for safety concerns, the effects would be too huge on the already troubled sector.

Pam said that the Kaduna airport would not be able to cope with the traffic that would be coming in, in terms of all the fixed-wing aircraft.

He said: “It is going to be a serious dislocation of the nexus of our air travel system. Every major airport in the country connects to Abuja and Lagos. So, to have that place completely shut down for six weeks will be a huge blow to the travelling public. They will be the ones that will be the worst of.”

The chairman recalled that the John F. Kennedy in New York, United States, one of the busiest airports in the world, does its maintenance at night when the traffic is least and never completely shut down a runway.

Aviation Security Consultant, Group Captain John Ojikutu, said that the choice of Kaduna for air traffic diversion would scare most of the foreign airlines away.

Ojikutu said that with the security issues in the northern parts of the country, none of the American and European airlines will fly to Kaduna.

Alternative routes during closure: The Federal Government has said the three airports close to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja, do not meet the criteria set for alternative airports to Abuja. This, however, did not go down well with stakeholders in the aviation industry, who expressed divergent views on the alternative airport and the total closure of the Abuja Airport from 8th March to 19th April, 2017.

Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, during the stakeholders forum in Abuja, said three other airports close to Abuja— Minna Airport in Niger State, Yakubu Gowon Airport in Jos and Ilorin Airport in Kwara— did not meet the criteria set by the Federal Government as alternative airports.

The minister, while explaining the rationale behind the choice of Kaduna airport, said: “Niger and Kwara states are probably thinking they are better alternatives, they are very good alternatives for sure but unfortunately, there are quite a number of criteria we looked at which the other airports did not meet before we chose Kaduna.

“The three are good airports close to Abuja but they simply did not meet with the criteria we used. Minna, Ilorin and even Jos airport as well.”

Rationale for closure: Stating what necessitated the rehabilitation of Abuja airport runway, the minister recalled that the Abuja runway was constructed in 1982, adding that it had overshot its design lifespan by 14 years, resulting in a number of distressed and failed portions of the runaway.

He recalled the experiences of airlines on the Abuja runway, saying: “On 4th December, 2013, a Saudi Arabian cargo plane damaged its landing gear in a major incident at the Abuja airport runway, which led to the closure of the airport for several hours, from the night of 4th December to the evening of the following day.

“In August 2016, there was also another major incident involving South Africa Airways flight that got damaged when it landed on the same Abuja airport runway. Just last year, Emirates aircraft was also damaged when it landed on the same runway and it was one of the reasons the airline gave for stopping operations to Abuja airport, while other international airlines were considering pulling out of Abuja airport like the Kenya Airways because of the dangerous runway and multiple incidences of landing gear damages that had been reported by operators of private jets caused by the poor condition of the Abuja runway.

“This administration with safety and security as its priority, has decided to face the problem head-on. The cooperation of all stakeholders is, therefore, required to enable us go through this transition period with minimal discomfort.”

Stakeholders differ on closure: Expressing their misgivings about the decision of the Federal Government, stakeholders, including Aviation Operators of Nigeria (AON); International Airline Operators (IAO); embassies in Abuja and the Nigerian Association of Travel Agencies (NATA), among others were not in agreement with Federal Government on the choice of Kaduna as alternative airport and total closure of the Abuja airport.

Chairman of AON, Captain Nogie Meggison, said operators were in total support of the rehabilitation of the Abuja airport runway but do not agree with the complete shutdown of the airport. Meggison was of the view that the 3900-metre runway could be divided into sections while a section is undergoing repair, the other is left open till the repairs of the closed section is completed.

He suggested that a section that would be left open could accommodate a Boeing 737, adding that international flights could go to Lagos or Kano for the period of repairs. He wondered if Kaduna airport was ready to accommodate the traffic of passengers and aircraft.

Responding, however, Executive Secretary, Kaduna Investment Promotion Agency, Mallam Gambo Hamza, said Kaduna was ready to take the traffic while the state had made provision for security with 20 policemen on standby at every kilometre.

The Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja will now be closed on 8th March. The airport was earlier scheduled to be closed for six weeks between February and March. No reason was given for the change of date. The Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja will now be closed on March 8.

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