The Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja.

Story highlights

Abuja airport shuts down for six weeks to repair runway

Smaller airport in Kaduna expected to pick up the slack

Business leaders fear lasting damage

CNN  — 

It is the gateway to Nigeria’s capital and seat of government. It is a vital resource for public officials, VIPs, and business travelers.

Abuja’s Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport handled almost 5,000 domestic flights in December alone, making it the second busiest airport in the country. But it will shut down for six weeks from Wednesday, March 8.

The shutdown is expected to cause severe disruption. But the decision has been forced by the increasingly decrepit and dangerous condition of the airport’s sole runway, which has ruptured in several places.

“The runway was designed for 20 years, but it has been in use for 34,” says Henrietta Yakubu, general manager of corporate affairs at the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). “It has decayed so much that there is a need to shut down the airport for complete rehabilitation.”

Mend and make do

FAAN considered options to keep the airport open such as night-only repairs, says Yakubu, but this was deemed insufficient given the urgent and extensive work required.

International airlines had complained that the runway was causing damage to their aircraft and threatened to suspend their services to Abuja, she adds.

An $18 million contract has been awarded to Abuja construction firm Julius Berger, and Yakubu is confident the task will be completed on schedule.

“(Julius Berger) has given assurance to the federal government and the public that the airport will be open for business on April 19, and we are holding them to their word of course,” she says.

Nnamdi Azikiwe International is the second busiest airport in Nigeria, with almost 5,000 domestic flights in December 2016.

Temporary home

During the closure, flights will be re-routed to the much smaller Kaduna airport around 200 kilometers north.

The government has conducted rapid upgrades to the runway and facilities, with ongoing work up to and beyond the closure of Nnamdi Azikiwe. There have also been improvements to the road between Kaduna and Abuja, with security and medical personnel stationed along a route through areas that have seen regular violence.

A free shuttle bus service to Abuja will be provided for arrivals at Kaduna airport. Passengers can also take advantage of a new train line.

There is cautious optimism within the travel industry that the arrangement can work.

“The option we were given was Kaduna and we did not have a choice but to run with it,” says Bankole Bernard, president of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA). “However, all the facilities to make Kaduna operate like a standard airport have been provided, the inspection has been done, the airlines are on deck and making the best of this alternative.”

Domestic carriers have agreed to use Kaduna, but many international carriers will not. British Airways, Turkish Airlines, and Lufthansa are among the airlines to decline the alternative airport, citing security and infrastructure concerns.

Violent clashes between herdsmen and farmers have flared in Kaduna state.

‘Lasting damage’

Despite contingency measures, there are fears that closing the capital’s airport will cause severe economic damage and worsen Nigeria’s ongoing recession.

“We cannot underestimate the damage and revenue loss the government will face in these six weeks,” says Bernard. “Business travel is going to be worst affected… Many people were flying to Abuja in the morning and going back in the evening. Now that is very difficult, and the economic impact could be enormous.”

A new train line connect Abuja with Kaduna, but the capital's economy is still likely to suffer during the airport closure.

“The effects of the closure will impact negatively on business not just in Abuja but the country as a whole,” says Tony Ejinkeonye, president of the Abuja Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Primarily, the hotels and businesses that depend on visitors will have to scale down or shut down their operations.”

“Business visitors have either postponed or canceled visits. In an economy that has recorded negative growth, this is a decision that was taken at a wrong time. The closure will be for six weeks, but it will take more like a year for businesses to recover from the effect of the closure.”

The many businesses that operate around Nnamdi Azikiwe will be particularly hard hit. Airport services group Skyway Aviation Handling Company (SAHCOL) anticipates losses of over $250,000 each day.

Reputation risk

However, economist Nonso Obikili believes that the bleakest predictions are exaggerated.

“Flying to Kaduna is inconvenient but not impossible (and) businesses have had time to plan around this,” he says, adding that the six-week period covers holidays including Easter, which will lessen the impact.

Obikili believes the worst effect may be an image problem.

“This will be a drop in the ocean compared to the economic problems of the past year,” he says. “But I think it is hugely embarrassing that the nation’s capital will have no airport for six weeks – that’s the disaster.”