•Row ahead of shutdown for repairs
By Dennis Agbo
THE Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, yesterday, shut down Akanu Ibiam International Airport Enugu, indefinitely, for the resurfacing of the runway which went bad and had required attention for a long time.
The runway had been branded a death trap by pilots, airline operators and even passengers to underscore how bad the situation with the airport had been.
Lending credence to the bad state of the airport runway, a former Minister of Information, Frank Nweke, shared his experience: “I first became aware of the condition of the runway of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport on Monday, November 27, 2017, when Air Peace Flight 47101 operating between Enugu and Lagos departed at 7:40 am and not the scheduled time of 7:00 am.
“No one made a fuss over this delay until the pilot apologised and implied that departure was delayed because the runway was being cleared of pebbles that could damage the plane and endanger the lives of passengers.
“He proceeded to say that the runway of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu was in urgent need of repair. These announcements immediately triggered murmurs as passengers began to compare notes on their past experiences and the implications of the Pilot’s statements.
“A male passenger recounted the very bumpy landing he experienced on the same airline’s service from Abuja on November 23 while another one narrated a most unpleasant high-speed approach and subsequent ‘dumping’ of the aeroplane on the runway on November 10 on the same airline’s flight from Abuja to Enugu.
“In a quick effort to absolve himself of responsibility, the rather expressive pilot informed the passengers that airlines were wary of the Enugu airport and urged the passengers to help by getting the relevant authorities to rehabilitate the damaged runway, which constitutes a major operational hazard for airlines and passengers”.
Nweke then hinted that pilots sometimes make ‘blind landing’ at most of Nigeria’s airports because of the lack of ILS.
His words, “Few airports in Nigeria have the Instrument Landing System, ILS, which enables pilots to land a plane even in unfavourable weather conditions. Consequently, our pilots have had to rely on their intuition in some cases”.
Sources in the aviation industry said Enugu is one of the airports without ILS.
Meanwhile, South-East Governors Forum, on Monday, August 19, wrote to President Muhammadu Buhari, requesting that the closure be shifted to ending of October, so that, among other things, enough time would be given to all stakeholders of the airport.
There were also arguments that there was no information on the time-frame for the repair of the airport runway, just like it was equally doubtful if contract for the job had been awarded since no contractor was named.
The issues triggered suspicion that the move to shut down the airport is intended to ground activities in the South-East for political reasons.
All the state governments in the region which the airport serves, Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi and Abia, are controlled by parties in opposition to the party in power at the federal level.
The governors, in their letter, demanded that the contract for the renovation be awarded to a competent contractor, particularly Julius Berger Construction Company, in whose quality of job they said they have confidence in.
The airport was remodelled in 2010 when former President Goodluck Jonathan upgraded the Enugu airport into international status.
Minor resurface works have since then been carried out at the airport while the runway has continued to fail.
One of the reasons the governors gave for pleading for a delay in the commencement of work at the airport to October was for the rains to stop and also to enable the Federal Government fix the roads leading to alternative Owerri and Asaba airports.
Before the governor’s letter to Buhari, South-East stakeholders such as Nzuko Umunna, a pressure group of Igbo professionals, had raised the alarm that the closure was suspicious. They noted that no time-frame was announced for the job, just like there was no contractor named.
Umunna wondered if money had been released for the project before the announcement for the closure of the airport. The group recalled that when Abuja airport was shut down for such renovation, a six-week time-frame was given and palliatives on roads and rail to Kaduna airport were made. In the case of the Enugu airport renovation, such information and promise of palliatives were not received.
The new Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, on assumption of duty on Thursday, insisted the airport would be closed yesterday but said that with the enthusiasm shown by the South-East governors, he will liaise with them to execute the work in 90 days.
The minister, however, failed to name the contractor awarded the job.
No going back
Enugu airport officials insisted when Sunday Vanguard visited the place on Friday that the facility will be shut down as planned yesterday, stating that they did not get any counter order.
One of them said that only the runway with its approach light and other lacking infrastructure that inhibited night flights at the airport would be worked on.
Public Affairs Manager for FAAN at the Akanu Ibiam International airport Enugu, Mrs. Josephine Ajara, said the community market, the abattoir and telecommunication masts around the airport were being removed ahead of the repair work.
There was no clear information if the dilapidated local terminal building, the air force and the uncompleted international terminal buildings would also receive attention during the shutdown period.
The airport operates on three kilometres bumpy runway, without approach lights, no sustainable water supply and without function air conditioners at both the departure and arrival halls.
The airport does not operate night flights and not more than one international airline, Ethiopian Airlines, operates three times a week.
A former airport manager there said that the airport does not have the capacity to carry more than one international flight at same landing.
Governors of the South-East had raised the alarm that the airport was no longer safe for landing, yet FAAN insisted that the airport had no issues until the announcement to close the airport for runway resurfacing.
Part of reasons adduced by the airport authority for not having beehive of activities at the airport were the existence of a communication mast near the airport; the closeness of Orie Emene market to the airport and inability to have dependable water supply for fire fighting in case of emergency; and community issues on land compensation which hindered installation of the approach lights on the runway.
Subsequently, Enugu State government said it would help to resolve the issues.
Some agencies at the airport attributed their poor revenue generation to the poor facilities at the airport.
It was revealed that international airlines such as Air France, Emirates and KLM had wanted to commence flights to Enugu but could not because of lack of water supply at the airport.
The Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF, said there was need for stakeholders to come together to normalise things at the airport.
Traders at Orie Emene market are however lamenting that they were never given notice for relocation before closure.
South East Amalgamated Markets Traders Association, SEAMATA, on their behalf, appealed to the Federal Government to review the closure of Akanu Ibiam.
SEAMATA lamented the far-reaching effect long closure would have on businesses and commercial activities in the South-East.
While explaining that the airport remains first choice for traders in the region, the group said that traders in the South-East would remain the worst affected while the closure of this airport lasted.