The power outages at MMIA

ReCENTLY, the Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMIA), the busiest airport in Nigeria and the country’s major gateway, experienced two power outages within a week. While the outages lasted, flashlights were used to board planes— yes, in a 21st century Nigeria. It is yet unclear how the control tower worked during this period. Perhaps everything was left to chance and since there was no major incident, there might be no official inquiry. Like every bad news, however, this development went round the world capitals in a jiffy, perhaps causing many potential visitors to the country to reconsider their travel plans. This should be expected as no one wants to risk his/her life to visit a country with palpable attributes of compromised safety.  And for an economy in recession and in dire need of alternative sources of foreign exchange from Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) and tourism, that turn of events was unsavory.

Not many airport users and industry watchers will consider MMIA safe given the incessant power outages that have now become a national embarrassment. The thought that the situation may be the same or even worse in many other airports in the country is also disturbing. Ironically, many Nigerians who use airports in other parts of the world often have salutary things to say about the quality of facilities and efficiency of their friendly but highly professional personnel. Some of them cannot help becoming activists on arrival in the country, lamenting the deplorable condition of the Nigerian airports and agitating for an improvement that approximates the services and the ambience they experience in saner climes.

But the really unsettling issue around these power outages is that no lesson seems to have been learnt. The embarrassment recurs time and again while the managers of this critical national asset hardly get questioned or sanctioned for patently avoidable hitches in operations. Worse still, there is no incentive to act proactively and with caution. Before the shameful incidents of September 12, 2016 and August 27 through 28, 2016 currently in the front burner, there had been precedents from which valuable precautionary lessons could have been drawn. For instance, on May 9, 2010, March 12, 2012 and March 8, 2013, this same MMIA was thrown into darkness due to power failure. Passengers arriving and departing the airport were subjected to untold hardship at the airline counters, immigration area and check-in-area. In all of these instances, the immediate issue was resolved without addressing the fundamental challenges or taking measures   that could help to forestall a recurrence.

Sadly, the reason adduced by the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) for the recent outages is hardly tenable. FAAN had claimed that the ongoing remodeling of the MMIA caused damage to the underground power cables, thereby short-circuiting power supply. But the question is why FAAN did not prepare well for the remodeling, both in terms of cautious excavation of the power cables without causing damage to them and /or provision of alternative source of power.  There is even an indication that the remodeling and damaged power cables narrative may be incorrect, as a report actually blamed the outages on a broken down transformer.

In any case, whatever may have accounted for the recent power outages was obviously preventable. The provision of uninterrupted power supply at the country’s airports, especially at the main gateway, should not be a herculean task for FAAN. If smaller and less endowed but better organised countries are getting it right, there is no reason why it cannot be done here. Moreover, some critical stakeholders in the aviation sector believe that FAAN’s revenue generating capacity, especially the $50 per passenger it collects, can more than conveniently accommodate the provision of uninterrupted power supply at the MMIA if it was a priority.We urge the FAAN management and indeed the Minister of State for Aviation to be more alive to their responsibilities. The incessant power outages at the MMIA is unacceptable.

It is common knowledge that the aviation industry is currently beset with myriads of challenges ranging from the prohibitive cost of aviation fuel to the major issue of scarcity of the dollar. The economic downturn in the country has taken a huge toll on the airlines’ operations, so much so that they have allegedly lost 45 percent of their passenger traffic. The inherently dollarized nature of the sector in the face of paucity of dollars has also exacerbated the current challenges.  It is a sad commentary that many foreign airlines are now gravitating towards Ghana as the aviation hub in West Africa. With all these negatives, the managers of the aviation sector and their supervisors should appreciate the gravity of the matter at issue and find a permanent solution to it. It is saddening enough that the aviation industry is in the throes of imminent collapse. But adding avoidable safety concerns occasioned by recurring power failure at the nation’s international airports to the already confounding existential challenges may ultimately sound the death knell of this critical sector.