On Wednesday, the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport resumed operation, six weeks after it was shut down for the repair of its runway. Kaduna Airport was used as alternative while the repair lasted.
Industry sources put the cost of movement of flights to Kaduna, the preparation of the airport to serve as alternative, including associated projects and security at about N3.2 billion.
The Kaduna airport witnessed flurry of activities during the given period when most of the domestic airlines and few international carriers operated at the airport. The temporary designation of the airport as alternative to Abuja galvanised economic activities, creating inevitable market around the airport, as businesses yearned to meet miscellaneous demands of passengers, from eateries to other services.
But now that huge flight traffic has returned to the airport at the Federal Capital Territory, which has become beehive of activities since Wednesday as airlines, which battled with challenging logistics and initial low load factor and passengers that have to travel three hours from Abuja to Kaduna to board their flights, heaved a long sigh of relief.
To effectively serve as alternative to Abuja, Kaduna airport was upgraded to Category 9 with improved fire cover, expanded and rehabilitated runway, improved instrument landing system and erection of the passenger terminal, which was literally abandoned when the airport remodeling progamme was terminated.
The Voice Ominidirectional Radio Range (VOR) at the airport was repaired in addition to the repair of other navigational aids, air traffic personnel were deployed and airspace services and weather reports improved. The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) was toying with security and perimeter fencing at the height of the period the airport served its purpose.
Before it served as alternative to Abuja, Kaduna airport was receiving about two commercial flights a day, so it was never a busy airport and that explained why there was no hurry to rebuild its terminal as the hajj terminal was put in use for the lean number of passengers that travel through the airport.
However, now that the airport facilities have been upgraded, THISDAY learnt that Arik Air, Medview and Air Peace may operate to the airport. Arik had been operating to the airport in the past.
Industry observers while acknowledging the upgrade of facilities at the airport lamented that they would become underutilised now that traffic has moved back to Abuja.
"From the road reconstruction to the deployment of security operatives, the Kaduna airport projects must have cost over N3.2 billion. They spent billion because all the vehicles from Abuja to Kaduna and vice versa were escorted by security operatives in their pick-up vans. So you can estimate how much that cost the federal government. When I travelled from Abuja to Kaduna to board flight to Lagos we were escorted by two policemen in Hilux van until we arrived. All the vehicles that left were escorted. They would put road safety (Federal Road Safety Corp) at the back; they would put police escort in front. The money spent on these activities is crazy," an inside source told THISDAY.
THISDAY learnt that beyond serving as alternative to Abuja airport, there had been plans to upgrade the airport and make it a very active airport, operating international flights and also given it a prime place by government. To this end, there are indications that government will ensure that an international flight operates to the airport beyond Hajj flights, which operates at least twice every year.
THISDAY authoritatively learnt that the Governor of Kaduna state, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai had written to the management of Ethiopia Airlines to continue its operation to Kaduna after it served as alternative to Abuja, promising to give it all the support it needs. Although Ethiopia Airlines has not replied the state government but it may give that request a serious consideration because of the good relationship between Nigeria and the airline. Indications show that although the state government made that request to the airline, it is tacitly supported by the federal government and the aviation agencies.
"It has been part of the whole scheme when government announced that Kaduna would serve as alternative airport to Abuja while the runway in the later undergoes repairs. It was a scheme orchestrated to upgrade facilities at the airport, but what was done is not bad. We hope that government should show similar commitment to the upgrade of other airports. In case of emergency, Kaduna is the closest airport to Abuja, so a flight under distress after taking from Abuja has an alternative airport to land in. This is why we advised to ensure that all busy airports have airfield lighting and can operate in the night in case of emergency," a source remarked to THISDAY.
But this is the reality check. Ethiopia Airlines said that it would designate the latest aircraft to come out of Airbus, Airbus A350 to Abuja airport. It landed at Abuja airport with 265 passengers onboard on Tuesday afternoon, a day before the reopening of the airport. The aircraft has about 343 passenger capacity. Ethiopia Airlines operates Boeing B777 to Lagos with about 350-400 passenger capacity; it also operates to Kano with Boeing B737-800 with about 140 passenger capacity; it operates to Enugu with Boeing 737-800 with similar 140 passenger capacity, so where will the passenger for Kaduna airport come from, considering the airports proximity to Kano and Abuja?
But besides this reality, which seems to stymie the plan to have Ethiopia Airlines or any international operation beyond Hajj services in Kaduna, the Kaduna airport has all the necessary facilities to function as international airport. It has the largest remote parking space among the Nigerian airports. Now it has the most upgraded landing aids and runway. Government should not allow these facilities to be idle, so it should tinker ways to make the airport more functional. Allowing it to be underutilised will not justify the huge resources spent on its upgrade.