After about forty-two months that it was downgraded by the Federal Ministry of Aviation over safety and security concerns, the Asaba International Airport recently recorded its first international flight, an indication that it is set to be an active player in the competitive aviation industry thus fulfilling the purpose for which it was built
The Delta State government is in an upbeat mood. The source of its ecstasy is the epochal first international flight recorded at the Asaba International Airport November 18, 2018. Initiated, constructed and made operational by the immediate past administration of Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan, the dream of making the airport operate international flights under his watch became a nightmare in the dying days of his administration when the sledgehammer of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, fell on it over safety and security issues which had earlier been raised but could not be resolved early enough. Built as a key infrastructure to drive its Delta Beyond Oil economic diversification initiative, the airport, until the April 27, 2015 sanction by FAAN, had enjoyed huge patronage by local airlines which found the Asaba route lucrative from various parts of the country. The enormity of structural works to be done within the limited time available to him had left Uduaghan hamstrung hence the inevitability of leaving it for the incoming administration of Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa, fellow medical doctor, to deal with. Good enough, it is one inherited infrastructure which vision the incumbent governor shared and had remained committed to its full actualization.
Sometime in 2016, the governor had noted that “the Asaba airport project was very dear to the heart of the former governor as he decided to give a befitting airport to the state capital. He did not bother about the Warri Airport that is situated in his senatorial district; but as a statesman and a man with his eyes on history and posterity, showcased unexampled commitment to the building and maintenance of the airport to attract investments and reap the economic windfall.”
Announcing the downgrade of the airport on behalf of the then minister of aviation, Osita Chidoka, an assistant director, press and public affairs in the ministry, James Odaudu, said the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority had raised several safety concerns over undulations on the airport’s runway, the lack of required strip, perimeter fencing, drainage, as well as lack of adequately trained technical personnel. Odaudu said the decision was taken since no concrete steps had been taken to address the issues which could compromise the safety of flight operations and the passengers.
According to the statement, “It has, therefore, become a matter of serious concern that despite a series of meetings with, and assurances given by the operators of the airport, nothing was done”. Odaudu further noted that the Federal Government had also drawn the attention of the state government to the fact that “it has, through its inability to address the issues, violated compliance with safety standards. Safety standard as stipulated in the Nig. CARs Part 12.6.2 and 12.6.3 in respect of the airport runway and its associated facilities, as well as adequately trained personnel, were violated”.
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The federal government explained that the downgrade was done in the public interest “because the Federal Government places a very high premium on the safety and security of aviation passengers and would never compromise set standards for whatever reason”. The implication of the downgrade, the aviation ministry further explained, was that the airport would accommodate the operation of only Dash 8-Q 400 aircraft or its equivalent until all the safety issues were addressed. It assured that “the airport would revert to its previous status as soon as all the safety concerns are adequately and satisfactorily addressed”. Amos Agbe Utuama, senior advocate of Nigeria, and erstwhile deputy governor whose office oversaw the airport project regretted the ugly development. He was however comforted that the airport was functional. Utuama, in his last interview with the magazine, expected that “the existing uncompleted aspect of it will be completed as soon as possible so that it will really assume its international nature… So, one would say that yes, we are nearly there because the facilities are on ground. So, all we need to do are those little things that we should put in place like the rehabilitation of the runway; that is the major one so that the airport can assume its international status”.
The November 18 maiden international flight to the airport from South Africa was, therefore, cheering news and a confirmation that the Asaba International Airport has regained its hitherto lost status. It was also salutary of the sincere effort of the incumbent government to have successfully addressed the safety and security issues raised by the aviation ministry. For Okowa, it was, therefore, a celebration of a sense of accomplishment that the airport could now operate international flights. Not a few political observers have also lauded the governor’s spirit of continuity in completing what was bequeathed to him by his predecessor. Savouring the joy of the occasion as he received the Super Eagles from South Africa after qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) against the country’s Bafana Bafana, Okowa, who was represented by his Chief of Staff, Tam Brisibe, stated that “this is momentous bearing in mind that the flight successfully took the Super Eagles to South Africa and came back without hitches.”
According to the governor, “It is more gratifying to note that the Super Eagles trained at the Stephen Keshi Stadium before leaving for South Africa through the Asaba Airport. They went to South Africa and qualified for Cameroon 2019. The principal thing was qualifying for Cameroon and by God’s grace, we have qualified for AFCON; we congratulate the Super Eagles for making Nigeria proud”. An equally proud president of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Amaju Pinnick said he was excited that FIFA had approved the Stephen Keshi Stadium for international football championship, adding that it was a thing of pride for the Super Eagles to travel through the Asaba International Airport. “When it was announced yesterday (Saturday) that we are boarding and flying to Asaba, it gave me great joy. It shows that God rules supreme in Delta State; we have qualified for AFCON and we are going to Cameroon to make great impact” Amaju said. Special Project Director, Asaba International Airport, Austin Ayemedejor, said: “I feel excited, we give God the glory for using the Governor of Delta State, Senator Dr Ifeanyi Okowa to achieve this great feat”. Ayemedejor who was appointed by Uduaghan and retained by Okowa noted that “what is more important is that we have been upgraded to Category C airport, which allows bigger aircraft to land.”
The successful upgrade, however, came at great cost. The airport had to be shut to traffic for five weeks sometime this year with the consequent loss of revenue, to enable the new contractor handling the project put finishing touches to the runway and other aspects of the project like the provision of some vital technical facilities such as the Voice Communication System (VCS), the Automatic Weather Observation System. ULO Consultants, the original construction company which built the airport, had to be disengaged allegedly due to its slow pace of remedial work, and the contract re-awarded to another indigenous contractor – Setraco Nigeria Limited in December 2017. Even within a short space of time of being certified safe for operations by the approving authorities, business is already looking good for the Asaba International Airport. Nigeria’s leading airline, Air Peace, has decided to make the airport its operational hub where it can quickly build its maintenance hangers, according to the state governor.
Giving account of his stewardship while presenting the 2019 budget proposal to the state House of Assembly October 17, 2018, Okowa informed the lawmakers that “we have made considerable progress in our quest to make Asaba Airport an international gateway. Following the successful completion of the runway rehabilitation work, the airport has been approved and upgraded to a Category C Airport to receive and dispatch large aircraft, by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority”. According to him, “Nigeria’s premier carrier, Air Peace Airline resumed daily scheduled flight operations in and out of Asaba Airport on Monday, 8th October 2018.”
But before Air Peace, there were other airlines. July 13, 2011, was particularly historic and vindicating of the genuineness of the airport project. Hitherto, critics and political opponents had taunted Uduaghan that the so-called Asaba airport was a big scam or a white elephant project. It was, therefore, a dream come true when on July 13, 2011, the first commercial flight from Abuja landed at the Asaba International Airport at exactly 12.17 pm. The 48-seater Overland Airways plane with registration number 5N-BND had 20 passengers on board, including the then governor who needed to prove a point that the airport was indeed a reality and was safe. It was, therefore, a most fulfilling moment for him as he stepped out of the aircraft to address waiting journalists aboard the flight. His simple response was that “the flight was smooth and pleasant”. He thanked God “for a dream that has manifested into concrete reality”. To his critics, he said “I welcome criticism at any time. In fact, my administration is open and ready to listen to criticism provided such criticisms are constructive and aimed at moving the state forward”. Even then, some doubting Thomases were still not convinced. They accused him of pulling a stunt to deceive the people about the delivery of the airport by bringing in a “toy” aircraft.
But that was not the first time an aircraft would be landing at the airport. On Thursday, March 24 and Friday, March 25, 2011, there had been a test-run by the airline. The first flight by Overland Airways took off from Abuja at about 1.15 pm and landed at the airport at about 2 pm after flying over adjoining towns of Ibusa, Ogwashi-Uku and Okpanam to announce its presence in the state’s airspace so to speak. Gilbert Sampa, who made history as the first pilot to fly through Delta’s airspace to land in the new airport which he acknowledged as being of international standard, said he was delighted to be part of the history-making flight. And the following day, the second aircraft, a France Air passenger Lear Jet, piloted by Ekstrand Rolf, landed at the airport around 9 am. The plane was said to have had on board a famous Nigerian music artiste, Wande Coal who entertained an impressive crowd which had gathered to witness the making of history.
For several months since its first commercial flight into Asaba Airport, Overland Airways enjoyed the monopoly of flight operations at the airport. Arik Airline, however, came in a few months later to break the monopoly. It, however, took Aero Contractors about three years to break into the market. Arik airline commenced full commercial flights to the airport Friday, September 2, 2011, with maiden flights from Lagos to Asaba and Asaba to Abuja. A latecomer into the airport, the Aero Contractors made its first flight to Asaba International Airport Monday, April 7, 2014. The airline which had been circumspect in commencing operations at the airport evidently because of unfavourable comments by political detractors, eventually took the bold step after it had taken its time to research into the viability of the airport.
Indeed, for the few years, it was in operation before his exit, the Asaba International Airport was a major driver of Uduaghan’s Delta beyond Oil Initiative, raking in huge revenues from taxes and other operations in and around the airport. The then government foresaw in the airport a massive potential for being a money-spinner for the government, and huge investment opportunities for the people. In the last three years of the previous administration, passenger traffic in the airport had been enormous. The state capital became a destination of choice for conferences by professional associations, annual general meetings, summits and workshops thereby attracting a lot of patronage to the airport. Ayemidejor confirmed at the time that “patronage had been most encouraging”. According to him, “there had been no lull in business at the airport with the potential of passenger traffic getting higher; and you know how that translates into extra revenue for the government”.
Reacting to the restored status of the airport and its historic international flight, an elated Uduaghan said it is “a dream come true for all of us in Delta State to witness the first international flight at the Asaba International Airport”. Speaking on behalf of the former governor, Monoyo Edon, his media assistant, said gave kudos should be given to “the visionary Dr. Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan, the immediate past Governor of Delta State, who, against all odds, including opposition from certain leaders, built such a landmark Infrastructure in the state capital”. Edon recalled with glee how before the painful setback, “Arik Airline had landed Boeing 737 planes at the airport consistently twice a day for almost three years”, noting that “there is no one making noise today that did not go through that airport in the big Arik planes”. According to him, some past and current presidents and Vice Presidents passed through the airport during that period and had good testimonies. “Many captains of industries and top business executives also did. Bodies such as Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Nigeria Guild of Editors, Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) and others had no inhibitions in scheduling their annual conferences for Asaba because of the availability of an airport, and the state-of-the-art conference centre. They all went back with good memories and testimonies”. While regrettably admitting that there were challenges with the runway and one or two things which needed to be provided as noticed by the NCAA in its third year of operations, Edon posited that contract for the remedial work was awarded by the Uduaghan administration before the end of its tenure, stressing that it was this contract and some of the finishing touches that were needed that the Okowa administration completed. Edon is convinced that “the economic benefits of the airport shall surely drown the views and sentiments of purely partisan people”, stressing that “history and posterity beckon on Uduaghan and the Asaba Airport”.
Be that as it may, like its executor, the Okowa administration is as determined to make Asaba International Airport the pride of the state and the goldmine it was intended to be. His plan for the airport is to concession it. The governor told the legislature recently that work on the concession plan for the airport had reached an advanced stage. Okowa expressed confidence that “the concession will ensure that we realise our objective of turning the airport into a mega commercial and travel hub in this part of the country in record time in order to boost our economy and create more jobs for our people”. He said the government had received strong interests from both local and international investors in the concession exercise “and we expect the airport to be fully concessioned in 2019”. Towards this end, the government, Tuesday, October 9, 2018, published a formal “Request for Proposal” in some national newspapers, while Deltans look forward to a fair deal for the state.[/expander_maker]