Nigeria starts dismantling its plane 'graveyard'

Landing in Nigeria's largest city, one of the first thing visitors see as they peer out of their airplane's windows is the moss-covered metal carcasses of what used to fly in Africa's most populous nation.

Workers at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos call it "the graveyard," an overgrown field filled with about a dozen cargo and passenger airplanes long since abandoned and left to rot by insolvent airlines. At least 65 abandoned airplanes, ranging from small commuter jets to one massive Boeing 747, sit at airfields across the country and serve as a haunting reminder of Nigeria's chaotic and disaster-filled aviation history.

Now, however, workers have begun dismantling the planes as part of a government plan to remake Nigeria's aviation industry. While some the federal government's plans seem aspirational at best, the modest goal of simply removing the derelict aircraft represents at least a change in a nation where corruption often ensures things remain exactly the scrambled way they are.

Nigerians "need to fly," said Henry Omeogu, director of airport operations at the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria. "They need to fly and feel safe in their airplanes."

Not many Nigerians have felt safe flying since June 3, when a Dana Air passenger jet had both of its engines fail and crashed just north of the Lagos airport, killing 163 people. The crash came after a series of other major crashes in the country, where airlines often have shaky financing and rely on aged aircraft.

The graveyard at Murtala Muhammed, at the far north end of the runway where planes come in, is where the derelict planes serve as tombstones for those failed airlines. An airline called Space World has two aircraft there -- Hallelujah 1 and Hallelujah 2. Bellview Airlines has two planes there, left after the carrier collapsed following an October 2005 crash that killed 117 people.

Planes sit at airports across the country, partly due to local regulations allowing airlines to park their planes for free at any airport they declare as their base of operations, Omeogu said. Some companies became insolvent and left planes still loaded with first-class china service and large briefcases for captains containing flight manuals.

Other aircraft sit parked on the apron nearby, including one for Air Nigeria, which collapsed last year amid allegations that owner Jimoh Ibrahim hadn't paid staff for at least four months, despite receiving millions of dollars from a government bailout fund. An airplane from Ibrahim's Nicon Airways, which collapsed after one year of operations in 2007, sits in the graveyard as well.

For years, the planes sat, partly out of the inertia that often grips government in Nigeria, an oil-rich nation earning billions that has an ailing state-run power company that can't provide reliable supplies of electricity for the nation's more than 160 million people. But in the last few weeks, government officials decided the planes must go, partly out of security concerns as a radical Islamist sect continues to launch bloody attacks in the country.

Officials decided to offer the planes free to those who applied for them. On Thursday, workers used hammers and saws to tear apart fuselages as landing aircraft roared overhead. Seats rose up in the tall grass, as oxygen masks and paperwork littered the ground. Most of the planes appear to be heading to scrapyards.

The removal of the planes come as Nigeria's federal government is remodeling terminals, some of which haven't seen much work in as many as 50 years. The government also has announced plans to buy planes and begin its own national carrier. However, corruption allegations still lurk. In September, Nigeria's largest carrier, Arik Air, halted its domestic flights and alleged that Aviation Minister Stella Oduah had a financial interest in seeing their business fail. Oduah denied the claims through a spokesman and the airline began flying again days later.

Omeogu, director of airport operations who is a pilot himself, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the government's plans would aid an industry that needs both a safety and a psychological boost.

"When you fly an `old mama,' an old aircraft, and you run into problems, maybe weather or anything, you're confident about yourself, but when you have to worry about the aircraft you're using, that's double jeopardy," he said.

So, for now, the hammers continue to hit the steel fuselages of the planes, some already opened up like tin cans. Omeogu hopes the airplanes at Lagos will be cleared in several weeks and workers will move onto the nation's other airfields.

However, cynicism about Nigeria lurked even on the remains of an abandoned Douglas DC-8 cargo plane. Someone wrote the following into the dirt coating a moss-covered landing gear:

"The cat is dead. The world is good for a rat."