Regular airline passengers flying between Enugu, Abuja and Lagos are familiar with the bumpy take-off and landing due to the dilapidated runway of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu and the ominous reminder sometimes issued by Pilots to draw attention to the danger to passenger safety posed by this runway and encourage political elites on their flights to act quickly for the safety of all concerned.
My take off from Enugu on July 8, 2019 on AirPeace flight 47102 to Abuja was not different and through the flight I could not help but reflect on the length of time that this runway has been in disrepair and how much longer it may take before a disaster occurs.
It is pertinent to state that this article was first written in November 2017 but its publication was withheld because soon afterwards government commenced palliative works on the runway from December 14-21, 2017 and subsequently December 27, 2017 to January 4, 2018.
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 7:40am and not the scheduled time of 7:00am.
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 airplane 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.
Ordinarily, aircraft take-off and landing require utmost concentration, even in the most advanced countries with robust aviation infrastructure and strong instrumentation support.
To underscore the above point, statistics from Boeing Corporation shows that 45% of all aviation accidents occur during take off and landing.
Over the years, Nigerian Pilots have become noted for their unmatched skills in operating under sub optimal aviation infrastructure conditions that would challenge some of their most skilled counterparts in other parts of the world.
Only 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.
One recalls a routine domestic flight within the country that was diverted to Cotonou, Benin Republic because of very bad weather. On another flight, the Pilot managed to land the plane in Lagos after a most turbulent flight during most of the 50 minutes flight from Enugu.
On both occasions, the Pilots had not been factually advised on the weather conditions. One with whom I was acquainted claimed he would never have taken off if he were aware of the severe weather.
These were very dangerous situations and ought not to have happened. Aviation accidents, though few and far in between, usually record high fatality whenever they occur even as advances in technology have enhanced standards and safety. Notwithstanding, evidence shows that 6% of airplane accidents globally from 2000-2017 have been caused by “obstructions on runways” according to an air crash statistics company, www.planecrashinfo.com.
The iconic Concorde Air France flight 4590 which crashed outside Paris on July 25, 2000, within two minutes of take-off, killing all 109 passengers on-board and four on ground was caused by a piece of debris on the runway which ruptured the plane’s left tyre, a piece of which got stuck under the left wing of the plane where a fuel tank was located, causing leakage and subsequently ignited a fire that caused the aircraft to disintegrate according the root cause analysis of the crash by thinkreliability.com.
The poor state of the runway of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu underscores the lethargic approach of the Nigerian state to basic development infrastructure and the safety of citizens.
What is a country’s aviation industry without rudimentary infrastructure such as runways and necessary instrumentation support for weather forecast and landing? How can we grow our economy, move people, goods and services without this basic infrastructure?
Why do we have the national habit of allowing public infrastructure, roads and runways in this instance, to deteriorate so badly, undermine economic progress and claim lives before repairs may be undertaken at much higher costs, if at all?
Baum, Hedlund, Aristel & Goldman, a Los Angeles based Aviation law firm estimates that about 12% of aviation accidents globally are caused by “maintenance error“, an omnibus term that covers everything from the upkeep of facilities, the terminal, the runway, equipment and the planes.
If the statistic above is not grim enough, consider the assertion that ‘maintenance issues’ contributed to 42% of fatal airline accidents, in the United States, between 1994 and 2004, the world’s most advanced country with solid public infrastructure and strong regulatory institutions!
How long shall we outsource basic institutional governance responsibilities to God Almighty who gave us the faculty to think and to dominate our environment? If other countries innovate, invent and manage themselves, why not us?
The Enugu airport had been closed for upgrade and or maintenance about four times between 2010-2017. In 2010, it was closed between February-December to extend the runway by 3kms.
Between March and May 2012 it was also closed for the installation of new runway lighting. In August 2014, the runway rehabilitated about a year earlier was severely flooded following heavy rains.
In November 2016, torrential rainstorm destroyed parts of the renovated terminal building, removed part of the roofing and shattered the low quality glazing of the area leading out of the arrival hall. The building was left open night and day for almost 9 months. Some of the buildings damaged from the 2016 rainstorm in remain unrepaired, almost 3years after!
The aviation industry is a high precision industry and leaves no room for even the slightest error.
The relationship between the aviation authorities and the airline operators is based on a contract under which airlines are licensed to provide quality service to citizens while the regulators will provide the requisite aviation infrastructure and support services to enable the airlines operate in a manner that ensures the safety of passengers and protects their investment.
On the other hand, airlines must ensure that their aircrafts are in top service condition at all times; undergoing routine checks to guarantee the safety of passengers.
The incessant deterioration of our public infrastructure few years after completion or rehabilitation calls our development planning, contracting, quality assurance processes and maintenance culture into question.
Public infrastructure need regular maintenance but should by design have at least a 20year lifespan during which the state would have obtained return on investment while planning for future upgrades depending on projected population and economic growth.
This is hardly ever the case in Nigeria due to poor planning, sub optimal designs, poor quality construction and corruption in oversight agencies.
In the end, it is our collective national loss because, as in the case of the critical aviation sector, new funds that could otherwise have been deployed to other sectors are reallocated earlier than normal to fix the problem that should by design not have needed attention for probably another 20years.
The nation had, in the past, lost hundreds of innocent souls through plane crashes due to inefficiencies and corrupt regulatory systems. We can avoid another aviation disaster.
In spite of the high passenger traffic through the Akanu Ibiam airport, which caters mostly to Enugu, Ebonyi, Anambra states, this airport is grossly underserved with only one daily flight from Abuja to Enugu and two from Lagos to Enugu due to concerns of airlines for the security of their aircrafts.
I call upon the Federal Ministry of Transport to act quickly to avoid another air disaster, and on representatives of the South East States in the National Assembly to heed the advise of these airline Pilots by urgently mobilising action at both the state and federal levels to avoid this looming disaster at the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu.
Frank Nweke II
Frank Nweke II is a former member of Nigeria’s Federal Cabinet, 2003-2007