THE serious incident involving Azman Air on February 16, 2021 when the airline’s aircraft a Boeing 737-500 with registration 5N-SYS named Sani Yunusa Sarina had a burst tyre on the Murtala Muhammed International Airport Runway 18 R/36L causing the busiest runway in Nigeria to be temporarily closed has strengthened the call for the installation of Air Field Lighting (AFL) at that runway.
Last week’s closure exposed certain vulnerabilities in the system especially as it regards usage of the International runway by domestic airlines once the local runway is closed for daylight operations.
Due to the inability of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to install Air Field Lighting (AFL) on the 2.7 kilometer (8,999ft) 18L/36R since the runway was rehabilitated and reopened in December 2008, 13 years ago, it has not tinkered plans to forestall events like what happened with the Azman Air serious incident.
Azman Air had to land on the 3.9 km 18R/36L because the runway it was meant to land on had no AFL for 13 years and has operated daylight for that time and one lucky thing with the landing on the international runway was the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the number of international airlines coming in for landing and their frequency.
This meant that FAAN could shut down the runway and reopen when the aircraft was removed. Now, theoretically speaking, assuming flights were coming in normally that means these foreign airlines may have diverted to Kotoka in Accra or elsewhere because one of the country’s major runways has no AFL.
For some, the argument was that the 18L/36R (domestic runway) is just 2.7 km and would not accommodate certain kinds of aircraft but the truth is, it could land a host of many aircraft and according to some pilots, a Boeing 777 could land on that runway but for certain an Airbus A330, A350 and 787 Dreamliner would land there especially as these wide bodied aircraft need a runway length of at least 2,500 metres (2.5km).
So the question is, why is the runway not equipped to handle emergencies or spillovers from the international and vice versa knowing that when all the requirements from AFL to approach lighting are available it would mitigate some of the kinds of hardships that have been prevalent over the years.
In August 2020, Federal government through FAAN announced that it would commence installation of the Air Field Lighting (AFL) of 18L Murtala Muhammed Airports this 2021 with standard lighting also stating that works on the Taxiway Bravo will commence first week of September.
Managing Director/CE, Capt. Rabiu Hamisu Yadudu who made this known stated that: “Resuscitation of abandon Airfield Lighting (AFL) project was on as that of Kano Airport is almost nearing completion, and that installation will start on the Lagos Domestic Runway very soon, we await NCAA approval to enable the contractor move to site.
“Primarily, the issue of 18L had a solar AFL but it was not accredited for our operations. We will put AFL. We already had the AFL in February or March but corona virus delayed. In the first week of September work on taxiway Bravo will commence. While 18L will be installed early next year, a standard incandescent lighting for 18L
So what truly happened and why did government rehabilitate a runway and conveniently forget to install a lighting system in an airport that it gets its major traffic (aircraft and passenger movement) from?
It will be recalled that the Obasanjo-led administration in 2006 approved the sum of N19.5billion as aviation intervention fund to secure the country’s skies after series of plane crashes that claimed many lives in the country. From this, a contract worth N3.56 billion was awarded to P.W Nigeria Limited in 2006 for the resurfacing and expansion of the runway 18L/36R by 150 metres.
It was also gathered that the cost of the air field lightings was not included in the contract sum.
Sometime in 2011, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) came out and blamed the non installation of the airfield lighting at the Murtala Mohammed domestic airport runway 18L to a court order slammed on the agency by an aggrieved party stopping the Federal Government from going ahead with the job.
This was even as FAAN hinted then that the contractor, PW Nigeria, have been mobilized to site and are waiting for the courts to rescind the garnishing order before it could commence work.
A former Minister of Aviation, Mr. Babatunde Omotoba, was the one who commissioned the unilluminated runway in December 20, 2008 and failed in his responsibility to ensure installation of the Air Field Lighting (AFL) when the Runway 18 Left when it was resurfaced and this situation has made it impossible for aircraft to take off and land on the runway beyond 6pm.
During the commissioning, he promised that the AFL would be installed within 12 month; a statement at that time that generated displeasure at airline operators and professionals who felt that this exposed the lack of effective planning and execution of contracts by FAAN and showed a ‘putting the cart before the horse’ situation.
After the 10 month promise, a former managing director of FAAN confirmed that contract for the project had been awarded and that the job would be delivered soon. “We are working assiduously to mobilise the contractor; the contractor is in the process of being paid; he is just about signing the agreement with the authority. Once he signs the agreement in the next few days, he would be mobilized to start work very soon. He has given us a completion period of 10 months. The contractor has met with the airport authority and we have planned the time that he should be able to work effectively.”
Another Minister of Aviation, Fidelia Njeze came on board 11 months after Omotoba and made her own promises that plans were on to improve the quality of aviation services and that in the next three months, the Air Field Lightings (AFL) system would be installed at the domestic runway 18 Left at Murtala Mohammed Airport Lagos.
The AFL however briefly came up sometime in December 26, 2012 when the facility was withdrawn from FAAN by the then Minister, Stella Oduah and handed over to the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) which deployed 66 KALKIT brands of emergency airfield lights and additional two approach lights, but that was reverted after a while and FAAN again took control of the AFL.
Every airline that has operated domestic in Nigeria have noted with dismay the negative impact on aviation due to the absence of air field lighting on Runway 18 Left at the airport.
Many aviation experts say the situation has exposed airline operators to danger as well as increased other operational costs as a result of the fuel often wasted for taxiing from the international wing to the domestic wing.
They even state that with the constant hike in aviation fuel otherwise known as JET-A1, airlines would have to spend more whenever they operate flights beyond 6pm.
Another effect of the absence of the AFL is the wear and tear of aircraft tyres as well as other faults the aircraft would have generated from having to taxi from the international wing to the domestic wing of the airport during the dark.
This, it is perceived, is a great threat to the safety of both the pilots and the passengers aboard the aircraft.
What would happen if an aircraft breakdown again on the international runway in the evening and the Runway is closed during peak of traffic as it happened with Azman Air?
The Azman incident sad as it is, has brought to the more serious questions for the aviation industry which today is still pursuing the hub status without putting everything in place to ensure it happens and one hopes that with the most recent declaration, the AFL would be installed and respite will come the way of airlines.
It is expedient that all litigation and garnishees holding the installation of AFL is looked into and sorted out so this new plan to install a lighting system on Runway 18L to provide capability for night flight operations is not botched and becomes part of the statistics for yet another lengthy analysis.