Public Safety and VIP Closures of Abuja Airport

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Public Safety and VIP Closures of Abuja Airport
 

By

 

Jibril Aminu

 

 

February 24, 2005

Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport is a prime aviation facility in the country. It provides both domestic and international flights in the whole range of aviation specialisation. These include passenger flights, cargo carriers, private aviation, government flights by all arms of the executive, visiting foreign leaders and delegations and aviation control operations like civil aviation. The Nigerian Air Force also makes extensive use of the airport. The airport is, therefore, ever busy; and it will only get busier as the aviation industry expands with passenger flights, both domestic and international, and as the Nigerian Air Force builds their barracks nearby. Protocol flights are likely to increase in view of Nigeria's highly activist and leadership roles in foreign affairs; and our high-flying foreign policy means that plenty of foreign dignitaries will be coming into Abuja through Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport.

Our customary demonstration of hospitality and friendship means special airport arrangements for each Very Important Personality (VIP) flight. This would result in closures of the International Airport for varying periods of time to all landings and take-offs until the VIP formalities are over. Some of the VIP flights, apart from the time spent on ground, need up to 40 minutes of lead time after take-off. These closures are inconvenient and take a lot of time and resources. They are fraught with risks to other flights, especially when the VIP movements are of the nature of an international Head of Government conference, as happened on Monday, January 31 and Tuesday, February 1, 2005, during the annual summit of the African Union in Abuja. Large numbers of air passengers were unnecessarily exposed to the loss of life and limb as they tried to arrive into or leave NAI Airport.

On February 1, Senator Dahiru (Sokoto South) and I left Yola for Abuja onboard an ADC Airline Boeing 737 flight which departed Yola at 7:30am to Lagos via Abuja. While the flight was schedule to land at 8:30am, we landed at 10:30am. Most of the two hours extra time was spent hovering over Abuja Airport. The pilot informed us that the airport had been temporarily closed on account of a VIP movement, but quickly assured us that the airport would be reopened soon. Half an hour later, however, we were still in the air.

Meanwhile, visibility in the Abuja area was worsening. After hovering for about two hours, the pilot told us that he would declare a state of emergency and land soon after, whether he was allowed to do so or not; and this announcement sent a shiver of a rumour that there was something technically wrong with the plane and that the VIP closure explanation was a just a ruse to comfort passengers.

We disembarked and met many anxious relatives all over the place. The airport law enforcing personnel promptly arrested our pilot for landing against instructions and arrested as well the pilot of another affected aircraft, Sosoliso Airline, from Enugu. The Sosoliso pilot was arrested because he too declared a state of emergency and landed. This "land and be arrested" seems to be the routine treatment meted out to pilots who land when closure orders are on, regardless of their respective circumstance.

Furthermore, it is sad that throughout the Monday morning up to 10:30 am, no plane could depart Abuja; and among those affected were a British Airways flight to London and flights bound to the holy land in Saudi Arabia.

The most recent VIP closures represented a great danger to public safety. They led to an undue congestion of the airspace and increased the danger of collision by hovering aircraft. What is more, too many aircraft in the airspace at the same time stress the control tower staff and increase their chances of making grave human errors. It is common knowledge that the serviceability of most of domestic passenger aircraft is short of the international standards and in a situation of poor visibility, the risk of crash is much higher especially in a mountainous area like Abuja. Air passengers always consist of all sorts of people: women, children, the aged, the infirm being medically evacuated and the easily perturbed. Many of these people could come to terminal grief for rarefication, anxiety or shortage of needed oxygen and other forms of first aid; they could set off a commotion from mid-air panic especially as a result of rumours onboard.

It is inconceivable that any other country of a status of Nigeria will agree to close its premier city airport, even for a while, for reasons other than dire emergencies, like runway fires, etc. Which country can put the lives of its people at risk simply to demonstrate hospitality to foreigners? The unnecessary and long hovering of aircraft is not only perilous, it is very expensive in aircraft amortisation, in company time, in the time lost by the passengers in their business, etc. The fallout could be inestimable. Delaying international operations like British Airways erodes confidence in our business sense and in the favourable estimation of investors even if they have been informed. These frequent closures are not acceptable because they erode confidence in our business methods and efforts. In addition, we may face nasty reciprocation elsewhere or in even court actions.

These closures lead in the minds of people to deep but unnecessary resentment of leaders who may have nothing to do with the actual insult; they are politically costly to an elected government and its party. Adequate notice of the recent disruptions was hardly given to people and most probably not the airlines and other aviators. If the concerned parties knew the extent of the disruptions, they could have adjusted their routings to avoid Abuja for a period. There tends to be overbearing behaviour on the part of the controllers in relation to aircraft and its payload. It is difficult for any decent society to understand why a pilot who lands in an emergency situation in the only available airport should be arrested and humiliated.

The most logical solution to delayed and cancelled flights as a result of VIP movements is to relieve NAI Airport of the burden of VIP flights. In this connection, the Air Force should have its own facility elsewhere. We recall that in the 1970s there was a tragedy at Kano International Airport when a trainee MIG pilot and his trainer landed on top of a loaded F28 of Nigeria Airways making its final approach to land. No one in either of the planes survived. Therefore, Nigeria needs to have a special military airport for its Air Force and VIPs like the Edward Royal Air Force Base near London, Andrew Air Force Base of Washington DC and Le Bourget Airport in France. Even here in Nigeria, the Air Force Base in Kaduna has a separate airport which removes the burden of VIP flights from the main airport.

The envisaged military airport in Abuja should be on the other side of the town (on Keffi Road) in order to separate even the approaching paths of the two airports in the Federal Capital Territory. The new airport could be outside the FCT. After all, Washington DC, for example, is the official headquarters of the Pentagon, the CIA Arlington National Cemetery and Dulles International Airport but they are actually located in Virginia. The Andrews Air Force Base, NASA headquarters, Camp David, National Institutes for Health, etc, are actually sited in Maryland, rather
than Washington, DC, proper.

In the light of all this, be it resolved and it is hereby resolved: That the Minister of Aviation and the Airport Commander tender an unreserved apology within one week to all those affected by the recent airport closures. I pray that this Distinguished Senate invite them for explanation if they fail to do so; that all protocol activities and red carpet ceremonies currently conducted at NAI Airport be conducted henceforth at either City Gate or in the Presidential Villa so that the airport will be used only for landing and departure; that helicopters be used to ferry dignitaries direct to the Presidential Villa to reduce tension on the road and avoid closing some roads to traffic, thus causing undue hardship to the populace; that from this year, a proposal be made in the budget for the construction of a military airbase to be located in the Southeastern part of Abuja in order to decongest the civilian airport; that under no circumstance should any airport be closed for more than one hour without prior notice to incoming flights and the general public; that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs advise its guests to appropriately schedule their flights to and from Nigeria; that the Nigerian Air Force, with all of its facilities and operations, be moved away from Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in order to avert the danger of civilian-military plane collision; and that the Senate congratulate the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on his Foreign Policy thrust and profile, and, especially, on the last African Union summit held here in Abuja. We reassure His Excellency that this Senate motion on airport closures is not intended to discourage his foreign policy initiative and activities but to safeguard the lives and integrity of Nigerians in their homeland.

bulletThis is an edited version of a motion by Professor Aminu which the Senate has just passed.
 

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