Untold story of Abuja runway

A section of the runway at Abuja Airport

The Abuja airport runway has been running fourteen years after its lifespan.  Contrary to the general belief that the airport and its runway was constructed by Julius Berger construction company, The Guardian investigation revealed that though the airport was built by Berger, another German construction company Dumez did the runway, while Berger handled the lightning on the runway.
Indeed, Nigeria and its citizens have been flying on one wing since 1982 and to make matter worst, by 2002, when the runway expired and depreciation and degradation set in, citizens and operators alike seem to fly with their fate in the hands of their maker.

Nigeria may be the only country in the globe where the airport in its capital city has only one runway shared by both domestic and international flights. 

So, when on February 5, 2010, an agreement was reached for a second runway to be constructed by Julius Berger for N64b, Nigerians heaved a sigh of relieve, but the contract sum raised a lot of questions, especially when runways with longer stretch were constructed for lesser amount.

Yayale Ahmed, then Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) announced government’s decision to terminate the contract due to the uproar the contract sum generated. But seven years after, nothing has been agreed upon for a possible second runway and the only runway has been going through emergency patching with no detailed arrangement for maintenance.
The hardship experienced by air travellers and flight operators due to the non-availability of a second runway cannot be quantified. A case was when, on the night of Wednesday July 4, 2013, a Saudi Air cargo plane ran into runway repair machines at the airport, which led to the closure of the airport for 17 hours, while the plane was evacuated.  Flights were cancelled, while inbound international flights already airborne were diverted to Lagos.  

In July 2014, the airport was shut following the need to fix some ruptured part of the runway. During the two weekends in July, the airport was shut for about 60 hour’s altogether. The first closure, which occurred from Saturday July 5, 2014 to Monday July 7, 2014 affected delegates arriving in Nigeria for the 1st World Pension Summit held in Abuja. Samuel Ortom was the Supervising Minister of Aviation then. The co-chairman of the World Pension Summit (WPS), Mr. Eric Eggink, openly complained at the Summit about the closure in the presence of former president, Goodluck Jonathan, thus a nation’s pride was lost.

Now that it is imperative for the only runway to be properly fixed, the Federal Government through the Ministry of Aviation said the airport needs to be shut for six weeks beginning from March 8, and Kaduna was chosen as the alternative airport, a decision stakeholders said was due to the overbearing nature of Hadi Sirika, the Minister of State for Aviation.

The Kaduna Connection
HADI Sirika is a native of Daura in Katsina State, but based in Kaduna.  He is a retired pilot who got his flying training at the Petroleum Helicopters Institute, Flight Safety International and Delta Aeronautics, United State of America.  The minister also has an operational aviation company.  A source at the airport is convinced that the choice of Kaduna by the minister is a way of preparing himself for retirement.

The Guardian was informed that even without an airport being shut down, every pilot is usually given three alternative airports in the event of emergency.  An aviation stakeholder said other possible airports are Minna, Jos, Makurdi and Ilorin, adding that it is when all these alternatives are laid down that issue of proximity and security comes to play and that Minna would have been the most appropriate, as it is closer to Abuja and safer for travellers.

The Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai had promised adequate security for air travellers during the shutdown, but the question was asked how the governor intends to provide security along Abuja/Kaduna road, when he could not do same in Southern Kaduna.  The source said stakeholders were not allowed any input as stipulated in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regulation annex 14, adding, this could be the reason why airlines are insisting that they would not fly from Kaduna.  He said there is nothing wrong with anyone trying to develop his base just like Stella Odua did with Enugu airport, but that it is high time public office holders began to put the country first instead of their beguile mindset.

“There is a regulation for shutdown of runway for rehabilitation by the regulatory authority, in this case the civil aviation authority.  In annex 14, is stated what and what is required from the airport operators to do when they want to shut down the runway.  The first thing to do is to schedule a stakeholders’ meeting, where you bring in everybody, tell them this is the situation, this is what we want to do and you bring in your work schedule and they look into it.  The airport operates primarily because of the airlines and anything you do is going to affect them. 

He added: “You allow them to have inputs, you allow all the agencies, all the airlines to discuss and from there you fine-tune.”  He said the meeting the minister was said to have held with stakeholders was like putting the cart before the horse and his body language suggested he had already concluded on what to do and the meeting was just to force his decisions down the throats of stakeholders, a development he said angered a lot of them.

“The kind of maintenance done over the years is to scrape the affected bumpy surfaces and refill, but the base supporting the asphalt lane, which is the first layer gets weak, upset and dislodged along the line.  That means that certain layer has to be removed.  What we had at one point was to repair one end of the runway and open it for landing and takeoff, if that end gets bad, we revert to the other end for use and then do repair on the one end that was in use previously.  But what we have now is a problem with the near middle point and with the length of the runway; you can’t cut it into two and have some major aircraft that come into the airport to operate.  The near middle point that has to be fixed warranted the total shut down.” 

He said by the time Kema chikwe came on board as aviation minister, the general maintenance of the runway was being carried out by the engineering department of the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), while terminal cleaning was done by a company, which goes by the name Metamaco. 

“The primary issue here is lack of maintenance or maintenance that was not properly carried out.  Everything in life has a lifespan and the lifespan of this particular runway has been overstretched.  That is the primary cause that now warranted this total shut down.  The degradation of a runway starts with a crack and what you do is seal it with appropriate material and from crack if not followed up leads to ridges or bumps, the surface begins to squeeze from a particular landing and you know the capacity of an aircraft and from there, you start having holes and when the element of weather like the rain, dry season all begin to take its toll on the already damaged surface and before you know it, pot holes emerge and you can imagine for an aircraft having to run into such hole, either on landing or taking off, it is disaster.”   

Choice Of Julius Berger As Sole Contractor
THE stakeholder said the bid for the contract was not keenly contested for as Nigerians were made to believe.  He wondered why the China Civl Engineering Construction Company (CACC), a company specialised in airports and runways construction was not allowed to do the job, especially now that they are still on ground in the airport, as the company is building a terminal at the airport.  He added that even now that the whole contract has been awarded to Berger, the construction company is only doing sub-construction as it has engaged other contractors, insisting that Berger is a general civil construction company that is not specialised in airport running.   He said the Chinese company has bided to construct a cargo airport for Benue State, adding that the company came on board while the current Benue State governor Samuel Ortom doubled as aviation minister.

“If this Chinese Company will be going to Benue State to build cargo airport there, why can’t they be allowed to build the runway here, after all Berger did not build the runway in the first place.  I am convinced that theirs would have been cheaper.”
Possible Alternatives To Total Shutdown

The stakeholder said airlines with big aircraft can downgrade to smaller ones, while the airport continues to alternate one end or the other like the practice whenever repairs needed to be done, or rehabilitation work can be done both day and night to reduce the length of the days of the shutdown, but he said the second option will be more expensive and will cost the country more money. It is hoped that six weeks would be enough to tidy up the runway and make it run again, he sighed.

Government Officials Positions On The Closure
MINISTER of Industry, Trade and Investment, Okechuckwu Enelamah said Nigeria should focus more on the gains of the airport shutdown, as it is a sacrifice everyone has to pay.

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