Foreign airlines operating in the country may scuttle any dividends from the planned diversion of flights from the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja (NAIA) to the Kaduna International Airport for repair works on the former facility as they have begun winding down operations at the Capital City’s airport.
While the South African Airways (SAA), British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM-Air France have already confirmed suspension of flights to Kaduna, Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, Air France, Ethiopian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, EgyptAir and others may soon follow in fulfillment of an earlier warning, except the Federal Government takes an urgent step to halt the development.
With the closure of operations at the Abuja airport, the whole of essence of diverting arrivals and departures at the Abuja airport to the Kaduna facility, as well as the facelift being given the Kaduna airport including the Abuja-Kaduna road rehabilitation in preparation for the huge traffic, may now go to waste.
Also, the gains in terms of improved revenue accruing to the Kaduna airport from the expected heavy traffic inflows and also to the state government and people of the city could be shortchanged if the move by the foreign airlines is allowed to take hold.
The suspension of operations at the Abuja airport and refusal to divert to Kaduna by foreign airlines also follows mounting disapproval of the timing of the closure, choice of the Kaduna airport, which many stakeholders say is not suited to handling heavy aircraft in addition to the distance between both airports.
Following the official notice by the South African Airways to the Aviation ministry of its plans to suspend operations at the Abuja airport instead of diverting to the Kaduna airport, the stage is now set for other foreign carriers who are expected to follow suit.
While many agree that the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja is overdue for closure and rehabilitation, they also concede that Kaduna airport is not suited for heavy aircraft and huge traffic, just as the distance between both airports is also a problem coupled with other issues of security and state of the over 300km Abuja-Kaduna road.
However, while the Federal Government has since awarded a contract for the rehabilitation of the road, the state government has also moved to assure travellers of security as it has deployed operatives of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps )NSCDC) on the road, while also guaranteeing shuttle buses to and from the airport.
“Must we divert Abuja traffic to Kaduna? Why can’t the Minna Airport serve the purpose for the local flights after all it is closer to Abuja than Kaduna. The runway (Minna) will still accommodate aircraft whose takeoff and landing runs are within 1000 to 2000 metres,” said Managing Director of Centurion Securities, Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), who also warned that the choice of Kaduna for air traffic diversion would scare most of the foreign airlines away.
“Those that will bear the consequences of the rehabilitation are the international flights. While the domestic airlines may find Kaduna airport convenient, the current security threats in that state may not make the airport attractive to the foreign airlines particularly those from the EU and US.
“My only worry is that they want to use Kaduna for traffic and I ask the question, why can’t they use Minna? Minna may not be as good as Kaduna, but a 737 can land in Minna. For them to want to use Kaduna for foreign airlines, I have my doubts that the airlines will go there. It is for security reasons. The way security is built in the north is different from how we have built it here.”
“If the people that are creating problems all over the place want to draw world attention to themselves, they will go to that place and create the problem. The Americans and European airlines have their minds on that. They do not want a situation where they would be brought into the conflicts, in such a way as they will be used as scapegoats. So, they would rather go to Lagos to land,” 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 travelling public. They will be the ones that will be the worst of,” Chairman, Governing Board of the Nigerian Aviation Safety Initiative (NASI), Capt. Dung Pam.
Already, foreign airlines operating in Nigeria had told the Federal Government that there is no need to close the Abuja airport to conduct repairs on its runway.
Chairman of Airline Operators of Nigeria, Noggie Meggison, who said though his members would support any decision taken by the federal government, such closure as announced was unnecessary, further adding that the repairs could be carried out at night while flights are allowed to operate during the day.
He said the operators were of the opinion that repairs of the runway could be carried out between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. while flight operations could take place during the day.
The airline chief said Gatwick airport in the United Kingdom, which like Abuja airport has only one runway, did not shut down when repairs were carried out on its runway. This is despite that Gatwick has more than 10 times the volume of air traffic that the Abuja airport has, he said.
Similarly, Osho Joseph, a representative of foreign airlines in Abuja, said that Kaduna might be an alternative for local airlines, but not for foreign airlines at the moment.
It would be recalled that South African Airways (SAA), Monday, officially notified the Ministry of Aviation of plans to discontinue operations at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja over poor facilities at the airport.
The notice comes only days before a formal closure of the runways of the airport by the Federal Government for needed rehabilitation and refurbishment.
In a letter addressed to the Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika and signed by the Acting Chief Commercial Officer, SAA, Mr. Aaron Munetsi, the airline stated that it would suspend operations to Abuja from March 6 until April 18, 2017.
“SAA commends the Nigerian authorities concerning the planned repairs of the NAIA runway. However, due to network and fleet operations planning, SAA regrets to advise that the airline will suspend its Abuja operations with effect from 6th March until the 18th April, 2017.
“The airline promised to be in constant touch with the Nigerian aviation authorities as the repair work progresses in order to establish its readiness for revised operations in accordance with the work schedule.”
On its part, the British Airways said it would soon make its position known on operations into Kaduna or not while airlines like Lufthansa have already stopped sales of tickets to Abuja.
The Abuja airport runway was constructed in 1982 alongside the commissioning of the airport. Rather than the industry standards of 20 years before total overhauling, the runway was in use for 34 years without any major repairs.
The Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport consists of an international and a domestic terminal. Both terminals share the same runway. In 2009, the airport handled 3,196,438 passengers.
The Abuja Gateway Consortium signed on November 13, 2006 an USD101.1 million contract for the management of the airport over the next 25 years. The contract includes the construction of an airport hotel, private car parks, shopping malls and a bonded warehouse, totalling USD50 million, during its first five years in addition to an upfront payment of USD10 million.
Total investments will according to the business plan amount to USD371 million during the period of the contract, Nigerian government revoked the contract on April 2008.
Contract for construction of a second runway was awarded to Julius Berger for $423 million in April, but were revoked in June due to the high cost. The Federal Government approved fresh bids for construction of the second runway.
While the complete repair works is expected to last for six months, the shutdown of the runway will last for six weeks from March 8.