Many passengers, who have passed through the international terminal of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos excoriated the poor air conditioning, incessant power outages and shameful extortion by security and other personnel working in the airport, but rather than address the complaints, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria has defensively said the facility is a site of on-going projects.Chinedu Eze writes
The Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos has never enjoyed a good reputation, perhaps in the few years after its construction in 1979. But for the past 15 years the airport has gained notoriety, just as it has been facilitating more than 40 per cent passengers beyond its capacity.
The airport, which is the busiest and the major gateway has epitomised corruption that is endemic in the country. It became a major passageway for drugs many years before dealers found other routes in West Africa. It was a milieu for passport and visa forgery for many years before the illegality was tamed and also it provided a window through which Asians, especially Indians, Koreans and Chinese get into the country without the right documents.
In the last 10 years aviation stakeholders have lamented its decay; how its capacity was overstretched to process more passengers than it was meant for when it was built over 30 years ago. The complaints that have raced along with the airport facility include poor air conditioning, the obsolete and epileptic conveyor belt, which delayed passengers as long as three hours before they collected their luggage; the overcrowding and delay in check-in processing.
Some of these problems have gone away as changes began to take place at the airport. For example, the delay at the conveyor belt, which is one of the major problems passengers had lamented about, has reduced considerably as there are now six additional conveyor belts: three in each of the expanded E and D wings.
But the problem of the airport is far from over. Last Friday, an official of one of the passenger handling companies that work at the airport told THISDAY when the story made the rounds that some passengers passed out on arrival at the terminal from Atlanta, “I don’t know whether anybody passed out but there is so much heat at the airport. When it rains, it pours more inside the terminal than outside and the construction work that is going on seems to have been abandoned.”
The international terminal of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos has gone through many changes. The E and D ends of the airport have been expanded and there is a new check-in system at both ends with 30 Immigration desks, 14 full-body scanners and other accompanying equipment. In addition to the six additional carousels (conveyor belts), there are new arrival areas with Immigration desks and the upper part of the airport facility has also been developed, including new lounges and new departures.
When THISDAY toured the entire facility on Monday it found out that the roof of the terminal has been opened for construction to take place and that explain why water drops inside the facility and are gathered with bins and vats, but the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) never explained to the passengers that rain dropped, so they see it as part of the decay ravaging the airport.
Transit lounges and airlines lounges are being built at the rooftop of the building and new departures areas are being created at the top D and E fingers and would be connected with ramps to the avio bridges to the aircraft. This will enhance safety as the old system where the departing and arriving passengers meet on the same floor with flimsy gaps will no more be the case.
In terms of security, the acceptable standard is that there should not be any communication between the departing passengers and arriving passengers because passengers who are moving to board their flights have gone through security screening and if they pick anything dangerous from the arriving passengers they will take it into the aircraft, which would be dangerous. So to avoid such possibility, government decided to build new departures at the top of the fingers.
On top of the D and E fingers are the departures and each of the new structures has width of 14. 64 meters; length of 210 meters and an area of 3, 074 meters.
By moving the lounges to the rooftop of the terminal, spaces have been created for duty free shops, which is lacking for the nation’s premier airport. The Lagos airport cannot be compared with any other international airport in any major country in Africa, except, perhaps the Kotoko International Airport, Accra, Ghana in terms of duty free shopping malls.
Not even the Spartan and pragmatic Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa, which is described by travellers of not having enough shopping offerings as would such a busy hub. So part of the construction going on at the Lagos airport is a chain of shops for duty free shopping. And this becomes pertinent now that the emphasis is on non-aeronautical revenue generation, which insulates the airport management from hiccups that go with aeronautical revenue that oscillates with off and on seasons.
Also on the rooftop is the transit hotel for transit passengers who may have to wait four to six hours for their connecting flight to Central and West African destination, or coming from these sub-regional destinations to international destinations. The transit lounge is a major requirement for the operation of a hub. To support Nigerian airlines to operate and airlift passengers from the sub-region and put them in their flights that would be taking them to Europe, the US and other destinations, the transit lounge must be a necessity. This will encourage domestic carriers to compete effectively with airlines like Asky and others that are coming up in West and Central Africa.
Another nagging problem the airport has is incessant power outages. Some years ago, the underground cables, known as armoured cables, became bristle due to old age and lost the capacity to convey high voltage, sometimes sparking fire and causing panic at the terminal. But most important of all, it gave rise to sudden power cuts which threatened facilitation, security and overall operation at the airport.
Recently power outages seem to have been exacerbated by many factors including the frequent system collapse of the public power supply, hitherto known as Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN).
The General Manager, Electrical, FAAN, Salisu Daura, told THISDAY on Tuesday that obsolete facilities due to the age of the airport and interruptions due to the on-going construction at the airport have adversely affected power supply. He admitted that regular power failure was a regular challenge of the entire airport and attributed it to degenerating infrastructure.
“The Murtala Muhammed Airport building was commissioned in 1977. Without major upgrade, there has been infrastructural decay. Three years ago, we started the upgrade of power infrastructure for the entire airport but targeted at the international terminal, which is the nation’s gateway.
Daura said that the power project was at the verge of being completed and until it comes on stream the airport might continue to suffer from power hiccups because of the frequent system collapse of the public power supply and because the standby generators powering the airport facility have malfunctioned, except one, but expressed hope that before the influx of passengers for the Yuletide, the new power project would have come on stream.
“Another major challenge that we have is the remodelling projects going on. The expansion work is affecting power because some of the cables have been disrupted; some are inadvertently cut off by the contractors and there have been a lot of breakages here and there. The major challenge of construction is when the work is taking place while the facility is in use, but if the place were shut down while work is going on nobody will know anything and will begin to enjoy the terminal when it is reopened.”
Daura said FAAN was mindful of its responsibilities and that explained why it put signage at strategic places to implore airport users to bear with the agency, but this does not have enough information for the passengers, many of who believe that the old airport is getting worse by the day. A passenger told THISDAY on Tuesday that when he was going to India last week and saw the bins and vats collecting water raining down from the roof of the terminal he was miffed and ashamed.
“I asked myself, so this is where many foreigners pass through to their flights. It was so embarrassing. I didn’t know that there was construction going on and I am sure that other passengers did not know. But the concerned authorities should have let the passengers know about this because everybody knows that construction disrupts the free flow of activities; it is just like constructing a road while it is in use,” the passenger said.
While efforts are being made to restore uninterrupted power to the airport and air conditioning would be increased as new chillers are being fitted, with the new carousel continuing to function effectively, there is yet no solution to the problem of extortion at the airport.
Extortion among security agencies has become a way of life and a culture that denigrates the image of the country but government seems incapable of doing anything about it. What makes the situation worse is that against acceptable international standards, some of the security operatives are not accountable to the airport authority; they claim that they are accountable to their offices outside the airport management.
Take for example, the airport manager or the managing director of FAAN cannot query a National Drug Law Enforcement (NDLEA) official, who may keep a passenger, who might have met all conditions to travel, until he gives him money or he misses his flight.
It is only in Nigeria that passengers luggage are opened and examined one by one by officials of the security agencies like Nigerian Quarantine Services, the NDLEA, Nigeria Customs Service and others, thus creating a forum for interaction between the passengers and these officers, who intimidate, harass and extort the passengers before content of their bags are given back to them or they are allowed to travel. In other parts of the world machines screen these bags outside the passenger processing areas.
A FAAN official who works at the international terminal of the Lagos airport told THISDAY: “Before these security officials go to work they will gather at this end (pointing at one end of the departures) and hold meetings on how to make money and the targeted amount each one will make for the day. Look at Police carrying guns at the entrance of the airport in civil aviation, and they are not trained on aviation security. Recently, they have started recruiting retired military officers as chief security officers but those people don’t know anything about aviation.”