The Sun News

Abuja airport turns ghost town

By Uche Usim

Until midnight of March 7, the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, was Nigeria’s second busiest airport. It hosted local and foreign airlines, ground handlers, small businesses, transporters and other stakeholders. But all the buzz and glamour have vanished, though temporarily. The Federal Government has shut NAIA down for six weeks, for the total reconstruction of its 34-year old runway that has literally become a death trap. The Kaduna International Airport (KIA) is the alternate airport expected to accommodate flights hitherto operated in NAIA.
When in December 2016 Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, first mooted the idea of a six-week closure (March 8 to April 17, 2017), many airport users and stakeholders dismissed it as a joke. They argued that there was no way such a vital airport, serving the Presidency, federal legislature, ministers and other top government and private sector players, could be totally shut down.
But today, the joke has become a fact of life and those with businesses at NAIA have been forced to move to Kaduna or figure out how to survive until it is reopened on April 17, 2017, if government’s promise is anything to go by.
When Daily Sun visited the airport 24 hours after it was officially closed for repairs, construction giant, Julius Berger Nigeria Plc, had fully mobilised to site. Gigantic earth-moving equipment had begun excavating the worn out runway, which had damaged many an aircraft. The company is expected to work 24 hours to ensure the time frame for repairs is not exceeded.
To avoid any form of thoroughfare, many parts of the airport have been cordoned off, leaving only sections meant for passenger processing.
Nearby shops and kiosks around the terminal building have been shut. Inside the terminal, most shops were also closed or at best operating at skeletal level.

Losses, losses, losses
The economic impact of the airport’s closure on businesses in and around the airport and service providers to travellers such as hotels, cab operators, restaurants, recharge card vendors and even food vendors, otherwise called ‘Mama Put,’ among others, is better imagined.
Already, the closure has prompted the postponement of the Nigeria International Trade and Investment Conference on Non-oil Investment until June.
The conference, themed “Multiple Frontiers: Moving Away From Oil,” aims to bring together local and international stakeholders to one platform to strengthen the positive contributions from international trade and investment in the non-oil sector, focusing on agribusiness, manufacturing and financial services.
Spokesman for the organisers, Mr. Sand Mba Kalu, said, “Efforts to convince registered participants and embassies to use the Kaduna International Airport were fruitless; we’ve talked to several of them but they seemed not interested in Kaduna. So, the only option was to postpone it to June, when the renovation work at the Abuja airport runway would have been over. This change in date is at a huge cost, with travels and other logistics altered.”
An international businessman, Mr. Ben Okechukwu, said until the work is finished, he intends to shut his clothes shop in Abuja because he would not be able to make his usual monthly trip to Turkey to buy suits, shirts and ties: “I plan to shift to Lagos. The biggest problem is we are not sure how long the airport will be closed. If it’s six weeks it’s okay, but if it goes for months, then it messes up the whole year.”
Okechukwu is not alone, as Mallam Isa Birchi, who sells dried beef, popularly called kilishi, said the closure of the airport was like a gunshot wound in his chest: “My brother, business has gone down so much. The passengers coming to Abuja airport (now) are always in a bus or taxi and from there they go for checks and then they are escorted into the bus to Kaduna. They don’t have our time. Sales have dropped. I pray this airport is reopened soon. It’s from this business I feed my family. There were days I made up to N15,000 in sales or even more. Now all these are gone, for six weeks. We even fear they may extend it. It’s not easy for me.”
For Mrs. Caroline Ifechi, who supplies office wear to airline and airport workers, sales have dropped. She lamented the turn of events, saying, “As you can see, the airport is scanty. It’s like a ghost town. Foreign and local airlines’ staffs are not here. I have fresh goods I just got and mos of my customers have, temporarily, relocated to Kaduna. So, I won’t sell anything for six weeks? It’s scary. I’m a widow and I don’t know how to cope. Can I be shuttling between Abuja and Kaduna airports? The answer is no. This closure is a deep pain in my neck. I can’t even quantify my losses.”
On his part, airport taxi driver, Taiwo Lawal, said the airport closure occurred at a bad time: “We’re in recession, managing to survive, and now look at the ugly development. It is like adding insult to injury. Closing this airport is like asking us to go and die. Who will we carry for six weeks? In my own case, I don’t even own the vehicle. I’m a driver and must deliver returns to the vehicle owner. I deliver N80,000 monthly. So, I may lose about N140,000 within this period. How can I cope with that?”
Ground handling companies are also counting losses. According to spokesman for Skyway Aviation Handling Company Limited (SAHCOL), Basil Agboarumi, the relocation has been a major challenge: “We’ve moved our major ground handling equipment to Kaduna Airport. It was quite an expensive task, coupled with the fact that the revenue we will realise there is much less than what we get in Abuja. We moved staff to Kaduna, paid them for hotel accommodation and feeding. Most of the foreign airlines are not going to Kaduna, from what we gathered. We’ve deployed staff there and catered for them. That is another expense on its own. It’s a major revenue loss to us. Besides, redundant staff will have to be paid somehow, we can’t lay them off or suspend them from work for six weeks because the development is no fault of theirs. We learnt the government is augmenting some of these bills for stakeholders, we don’t mind benefiting from that too.”
Even pupils in schools in the airport’s environsare also feeling the pinch. They claim that they now have difficulty getting transport to school because of the limited number of vehicles that ply the airport route these days.

Passengers take FAAN to task
At the NAIA, virtually all the passengers demanded for better directional signs to ease the journey around the facility. They urged the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to dismantle the clumsy arrangement where passengers usually spend a valuable time trying to figure out how to go about the pre-boarding formalities for the transit to Kaduna.
However, Daily Sun’s findings showed that a good number of passengers going to Kaduna Airport prefer to make their own private arrangements, thus saving themselves the hassles of first going to NAIA (on the outskirts of the FCT) to take the free shuttle bus for another two-hour journey to Kaduna. This was evident in the deserted nature of NAIA, as only a few passengers took the buses designated for the Abuja-Kaduna transit shuttle. In some cases, fewer than 10 passengers occupied a 60-seater bus.
Nevertheless, Ejiro Johnson, a passenger, described the transfers as smooth and convenient, “No fee has been charged, except the money I paid for the (airplane) ticket. The arrangement for now is perfect, though I don’t know what it will become later but what I’m experiencing is that the operation is seamless and working fine.”
Another passenger, Erica Rowland, expressed joy at the good number of policemen that will escort passengers to Kaduna Airport. “They’re here ready to move. I love that. Our safety and security remain paramount. This gives us confidence because what we keep hearing is that marauding herders patrol that road always, but with this, we feel safe,” she said.
Similarly, Prof. Dolapo Lufadeju, noted that the screening was okay, even as he urged the airport management to put up more signage to guide passengers at the airport: “The important thing is that there may be no need to do another screening in Kaduna since all of us have been screened in Abuja. We need to be conscious of safety procedures.”

FAAN’s intervention
In her remarks, the International Terminal Manager of FAAN, Mrs. Hajara Musa, said the management had noted some lapses and would correct them going forward.
“On the arrangement, you know that, normally, when you start something, no matter the plan that is being put in place, you have to practicalise before you know its shortcomings. We are just starting and, gradually, there will be more improvement. We have made arrangements for the signage for clearer direction of passengers and staff. We have more than 10 buses as five have left for Kaduna, these will convey passengers back to Abuja if they so wish.”
However, chairman of the Air Traffic Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSAN), Abuja Airport, Emmanuel Kyari, urged the government to ensure that workers posted to Kaduna get their wages, to make their stay there comfortable.
“Some of our operational workers left on Saturday while some others left on Tuesday and up till this morning they are yet to get alert for their pay. Their accommodation has not been sorted out. Government  has to look into means of making their stay in Kaduna comfortable, since that is not their station.
“About 40 aviation security staff left for Kaduna and 44 from the fire department joined them and also we have conflicting reports on the number of workers there. The government needs to clarify this so that workers are not sent to Kaduna and they don’t get paid for the job they are supposed to do there,” he said.

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