What could have been an opportunity for the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to put major infrastructure in place at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, may have been lost during these four months period the country’s airspace has been shut down as a result of the rise in cases of Covid-19.
On the 23rd of March, 2020, the Federal Government shut down MMIA, Lagos and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja, in a bid to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The closure of international flight operations at the Lagos and Abuja airports is in addition to the three other international airports in Kano, Enugu and Port Harcourt that were shut for flight operations on 21st of March.
According to data provided by FAAN, Enugu airport handles between 350 to 400 flights annually; Port Harcourt airport processes about 1,700 to 1,800 flights annually. Kano airport handles 2,000 to 2,100 flights annually; Abuja airport 9, 896 flights and Lagos 40,934 flights annually.
Hadi Sirika, the Minister of aviation, says Nigerian aviation is the hard-hit as COVID-19 ravages and that monthly losses to the industry now amount to now around N17bn.
FAAN had on several occasions said the airport infrastructure upgrade was slow because of congestion at the airport as a result of passenger movements, making it unsafe to carry out major repairs and new installations at the airport.
However, in the past four months of the shutdown, BusinessDay’s checks show that no major infrastructure upgrade has been carried out at MMIA, the nation’s busiest airport.
A visit by BuisnessDay to the airport recently showed that there have been no major infrastructure upgrades at the airport during the lockdown.
FAAN told BusinessDay that some of its infrastructure upgrade could not kick-off because of restrictions in movement during the lockdown, making it difficult for contractors and technicians to move around but stakeholders and experts say this is no excuse as essentials flights carrying passengers and cargos were still allowed into the country during the lockdown.
Old aero bridges
When flight resumes, passengers will still have to manage the old aero bridges at the nation’s busiest airport.
Airlines operating in Nigeria have continued to spend millions of naira annually just to tow their aircraft into the aerobridge, a point to disembark passengers after landing, as a result of the failure of FAAN to address infrastructure deficit at the airport.
BusinessDay findings show that five years after the federal government bought and commissioned 28 aero bridges from China costing about N4.8billion; it has failed to deliver them into the country.
Checks by BusinessDay show that each aero bridge cost around $565,095. With an exchange rate of N360 to a dollar, it will cost the government N4.8billion to procure the equipment. Government failed to bring in these bridges and set them up during the lockdown.
The absence of the automated bridges have since seen airlines operating in Nigeria consistently spend millions of naira annually just to tow their aircraft into the aerobridge, a point to disembark passengers after landing.
BusinessDay’s checks show that in other climes, airlines taxy their aircraft into the aerobridge but in Nigeria, airlines pay to taxy their aircraft to the bridges because the aerobridges are old and not automated to align with newer aircraft. This process has continued to constitute unnecessary delays to passengers who are forced to remain in the aircraft for 15 to 25 minutes for the aircraft to be towed after landing.
Alexander Nwuba, managing director, Smile Air Ghana and former MD, Associated Airlines and WestAir Benin, who explained the technicalities to BusinessDay, said the reason why airlines have to tow their aircraft into the bridges are because the bridges are very old and not suitable to align properly with newer aircraft and the lights that serve as visual aids to pilots may not be functional.
“The aerobridges at the Lagos airport are very old. For instance, it is not the same bridge you use for a Boeing 777 that is used for a Boeing 737. In other countries, when an aircraft lands, it is told what bridge to go into depending on the aircraft type. So, with the bridges we currently have, it is safer for the aircraft to be towed into them, while some developed airports use automated bridges.
“In addition to this, there are some equipment markers in the form of lights that give visual aids to the pilot when he lands and taxies into the bridge. The light changes colours as the aircraft taxies into the bridge to indicate its final stop. We need to ask FAAN if those lights are working,” Nwuba explained.
BusinessDay’s checks show that all 30 international airlines operating in Nigeria pay nothing less than N985,500,000 annually into the coffers of the Skyway Aviation Handling Company (SAHCOL) and Nigerian Aviation Handling Company Plc (nahco aviance) to tow their aircraft into the Starways which is the disembarkment point for passengers.
Escalators pack up
A visit by BusinessDay to the airport recently showed that the escalators are currently not working, which will continue to constitute hassles to the passengers, especially the aged.
Experts say there can be no better time to fix these escalators than now because it will aid easy movement of passengers and avoid crowds, which could be dangerous considering the times we are in.
The closure of the second taxiway at the Lagos airport as a result of its poor state has continued to constitute flight delays and congestion of passengers at the terminal upon arrival.
BusinessDay’s checks show that for over 15 years, the second taxiway has been closed, forcing aircraft to pass through one taxiway, while other aircraft tarry till the air traffic controllers are able to clear the taxiway for another aircraft to taxi through.
Air traffic controllers have continued to complain that this situation makes work tedious for them and causes unnecessary delays for the passengers and the airlines. The closure apart from reducing the capacity of the airport is also making it impossible for aircraft to do normal engine runs at the compass wing. Experts also say the lockdown period would have been an ideal time to fix the taxiway while there were skeletal flight operations.
Landing lights and Navigational aids
BusinessDay’s checks show that MMIA has two runways but uses only one runway for night operations because the second runway does not have landing and navigational aids. The runway lights are still bad and all aircrafts landing at night will continue to use one runway until the lights are fixed.
These landing aids include led insert runway light, centreline lights, high intensity taxiway lights, double-led solar airfield light, perimeter lights amongst others. Each of these lights cost between 400 to 600 dollars which amounts to N144,000 to N216,000 using the exchange rate of 360 Naira to a Dollar. The airport runway will need several of these lights for airlines to land and take-off from the runway at night.
John Ojikutu, member of the aviation industry think tank group, Aviation Round Table (ART) and chief executive of Centurion Securities, told BusinessDay that the government airport operators should have used the lockdown period to attend to the runway that lack landing lights and navigational aids which are necessary to aid flights landings at nights and in reduced visibilities especially in bad weather.
Few access and exit gates
BusinessDay’s checks show that MMIA has about three entrance and exit gates which may not be sufficient enough to achieve social distancing.
According to Ojikutu, “While we talk about social distancing for passengers within the airports departure halls, there are no clear measures for such distancing on arrival.
“There are no clear plans for crowd control at the access and exit gates of the passenger terminals. FAAN hasn’t come out with any plan on spacing between passenger flights departures and arrivals.
“FAAN has not increased capacities of the airport terminals to receive these passengers. There is a need to work these out especially when it is obvious that it will take time to attain the passenger level we were pre COVID-19,” he said.
Few Screening and X-ray machines
While it is understandable that airlines may delay and cancel flights over technical and weather-related constraints, very little can be done to remedy some of these problems like weather-related ones, but infrastructural gaps continue to pose a huge challenge.
In Nigeria, passengers spend unduly long time at security screening points because of insufficient number of X-ray machines, therefore passengers are forced to queue at security screening points especially at peak hours.
In other climes, it takes between 30 seconds to two minutes to get screened but in Nigerian airports, it takes between five and 15 minutes to get screened depending on the number of passengers waiting to be checked. For example, airlines face a lot of delay processing passengers at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) Lagos airport because there is only one functional X-ray machine at any point in time and hundreds of passengers going to different destinations during the morning rush hours must pass through one functional X-ray machine at each of the terminals at the GAT.
John Ojikutu listed some of the infrastructural gaps that cause flight delays at Lagos airport to include inadequate checking-in-counters; inadequate passengers screening checkpoints and screening machines or unserviceable screening machines resulting in manual screening; inadequate aircraft boarding gates; inadequate aircraft parking areas; inadequate ground handling equipment or facilities; and absence of taxiways or sufficient links from aprons to runways.
Ojikutu stressed that inadequate skilled manpower to man most of these facilities or systems can cause delays, especially the passengers screening checkpoints where the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recommended standard is at least five but Nigerian airports have two or three persons.
Other factors he mentioned include “Airspace management; inadequate and inexperience air traffic controllers particularly for aerodromes and approach control can cause delays if the traffic volume is beyond the capacity and capability of the controllers especially if there is no supervisors that can always intervene; inadequate and inefficient landing aids, poor communication both at terminal and enroute and poor weather at destinations, enroute and at alternative airports.”
Olumide Ohunayo, an aviation analyst told BusinessDay that security will include measures for or a review of the security access control and screening for everyone which will include heath/COVID-19 screening; (Access gates are still the same numbers) hold and carry-on baggage screening; amongst others.
Impact of poor infrastructure on airlines
Allen Onyema, the Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace, recently made a case for the upgrade of airports infrastructure across Nigeria. Onyema said: “There is no way you can optimally use your planes in Nigeria. The airport infrastructure does not support that and that is why we are saying, the first thing we should do in this country is to improve on our airports infrastructure. From check-in to flight navigational aids, making the airport environment conducive, both for operators and passengers, the infrastructure is poor.”
“There is no way airlines will optimally use their equipment. Air Peace has never, because many of the airports in Nigeria close shop at 6p.m. So, when they close shop at 6p.m, where will you go? Besides Lagos, Kano, Abuja and Port Harcourt, the rest close shop at 6p.m,” he said.
“It is a capital intensive business. Every penny counts. We must get our airport infrastructure right. It is not about saying Nigerian airlines are weak. We should promote our own. Bring the legacy airlines of this world to come and do domestic operations in Nigeria, they will pack up in 72 hours. We know what we go through.”
FAAN responds, says infrastructures are being worked on
Henrietta Yakubu, general manager, public affairs, FAAN, told BusinessDay that the delay in infrastructure upgrade at the airport during the lockdown was because of restrictions in movement, adding that work is currently ongoing at sections of the airport.
“People who would have fixed infrastructures at the airport were not moving around. We have self-service kiosks that are on ground. They cannot be fixed because the technicians that are supposed to fix them cannot travel to the country to fix them.
“The managing director of FAAN has promised that once international flights resume, those self-service kiosks will be mounted. We are also working on improving our technology, so that there will be less contact with people. It will be more IT-based and fewer contacts between people. We are improving our website.
“These are some of the things that we could handle during the lockdown and we are working on,” Yakubu said.
She said FAAN wanted to fix the second taxiway but was not able to get contractors to come down as a result of the lockdown. She also assured that the aero bridges have been procured and a total replacement will be done soon.
Minister to upgrade infrastructures through airport concession
In a bid to close these infrastructure gaps across our airports, Hadi Sirika, minister of Aviation, have suggested concession of the country’s airports.
In a recent document issued by the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC), it disclosed that the Federal Ministry of Aviation (FMOA) will be adopting Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) procurement methodology for expanding and further developing the nation’s transport sector.
The FGN through the Ministry of Aviation has adopted PPP as the strategy to leverage private sector participation and investment to achieve the upgrade and development of new terminal infrastructure at the four identified airports in a cost-effective and value for money based manner. Infrastructural gaps at the Lagos airport have continued to pose a huge challenge to airport users and airline operators. Stakeholders are therefore hopeful that the decision of the federal government to concession these airports in a bid to address infrastructures gaps will be a lasting solution to this problem which has lingered for a while.
This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality Check project.