The airport is closed’. For most passengers in the air, this pronouncement coming from the cockpit could be some of the most hair-raising words to hit their ears. This was what happened to us on a flight to Abuja from Dubai on Friday the 13th. It was a seven-hour flight, uneventful while traversing clear skies with the briefest turbulences here and there. It was a day flight and everything went smoothly until about three in the afternoon when we approached the airport in Abuja. From the cockpit there was the routine announcement of the intended landing with the usual ceremonials of flight attendants running up and down the aisles ensuring that passengers were ready for the touchdown.
Soon everyone including the restless flight attendants were belted up in their seats all ready for landing. Looking out to the window I could see some haze enveloped the plane but It was not the kind to distract from landing. I have spent some days away and I was looking forward to the routines that had become my life in Abuja. After some time, I realized the plane seemed to have stalled in the air and was not making any progress to land. I was wondering what had happened when the mike cracked and the pilot announced: ‘ the airport is closed.’ I could hear gasping sounds from fellow passengers and then silence. The Captain did not give any explanation and apparently the passengers were too preoccupied with their individual thoughts to ask questions. In any case there was nobody to ask.
Meanwhile one could follow the movement of the plane on the screen placed in front of every passengers’ seat. It was cold comfort but at least one could see that we were in Abuja, though we could not land. I looked out of the window again and I guessed it would be trite to say that the Captain had nowhere to park the plane to await further instructions. The nearest airports could be Minna and I was left wondering if the airport there could take a plane as big as the wide-bodied Boeing 777, we were cruising in. I could see the plane making circular movements, going off towards Minna, then changing its mind and turning towards Kaduna, returning to Abuja and then careering off towards Jos. We must have spent some 25 to 30 minutes perambulating the skies and hovering over Abuja when at last the Captain announced that we were landing.
There was a huge sigh of relief all round but there was no explanation for the frightful moments we went through. It was only after landing and clearing the stiff Coronavirus checkpoint that I began to ask questions. Someone opined that since the Captain did not hint at any technical problems the delay must have been associated with a VIP movement. The aircraft crew never liked these untoward delays because it is costly in terms of fuel consumption while idling in the skies including, of course, the problems that could arise in rescheduling. That could be the reason why they did not feel obliged to proffer any explanations to their stressed passengers.
I may not count as a frequent flier but over the last forty or so years, I have flown to many parts of the world and I have never witnessed the kind of impudent handling of passengers and crew safety that I saw that day. I have encountered delays at landing and take-off during internal flights but these are short haul flights and the trauma would not be as much. It is inconceivable to me that a plane that had come seven hours, or so, away would be left for a considerable time hovering in the air because another plane carrying some VIP is taking off or landing at that time. What explanations would we give to the world should any unforeseen incident occur on that account?
When I enquired from someone whom I knew should know, he passed it off as a global standard practice meant to protect VIPs from terrorist and related acts. The practice in Nigeria is to provide a window of one hour to close the airspace whenever there is a VIP movement. When I asked why these VIP movements are not so pronounced and ubiquitous in other countries, nobody provided a good answer. I wonder how other countries deal with their VIP movements in such a seamless manner such that one hardly noticed.
In fact, the 7th Senate wanted to do something about it when a motion by 30 Senators came before them wishing to curb the abuses of the Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) orders by the Nigerian airport commandants and security officials. The Senate then was particularly concerned by an incident in which an Arik morning flight from Lagos to Abuja and six other flights were without advanced notice suspended in the air for a long time because a VIP was using the airport. In a report I gathered from Nigerian Flight Desk, an online business news portal, the Arik plane had actually pulled out its tyres to land when it was turned back to the skies. Shortly after the pilot made it back into the air, he was given clearance to return and land. And for the second and third time the pilot was ordered back to the sky after he pulled out tyres to touch down.
A similar incident occurred in Lagos in 2014, when as many as six passenger planes were made to hover over the Murtala Mohammed International Airport to allow the President and his advance team use of the airspace. This was when the President was paying a visit to the Synagogue Church of All Nations where a guest house had collapsed earlier and killed 115 devotees, most of them from South Africa. I guess it was a harrowing experience for most passengers on those stranded flights. There must be some ways to coordinate these VIP movements to rhyme with the other daily flight schedules. The security officials in the airport must find a way to coordinate these movements along with those in the tower so that information is disseminated in time to airlines before they leave their stations. Having many planes hovering in the airspace of our airport, with all the attendant risks involved is not a good advertisement for our aviation industry. In any case, for long haul flights there should be no reason to delay their take-off or landing.
I understand that the airspace is structured with paths or routes that could be allocated if the need arises. A path in the airspace could be reserved for VIP movements and allowing other movements the remaining spaces. That’s what is being done in the USA; but it is said to be too expensive for a developing country like ours to muster. A more practical way out, I guess, is to develop another airport for the military in Abuja, which can additionally be used for VIP movements. A good example of this kind of airport is the America’s Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, which was started as a purely military outpost and would later transmute and is now more known as the home of the Air Force One, the official transport of the President of the USA. I also heard some stakeholders in the industry suggesting that the money meant for the Abuja Airport second runway could conveniently build that kind of air force base and relieve the conventional airport of these and many other functions.