Explained: Why Africa lags behind in terms of air travel experience

Airlines are going through turbulent times flying to Liberia and other African countries.

Published : Apr 13, 2022 12:55 IST

In some parts of Africa, investment in airport infrastructure is meagre — a reason why some countries keep popping up on lists of the most horrible airports in Africa.

In some parts of Africa, investment in airport infrastructure is meagre — a reason why some countries keep popping up on lists of the most horrible airports in Africa.

It was 2 a.m. sometime in February 2022. A Royal Air Maroc airplane was in the skies, approaching Liberia's Roberts International Airport. Suddenly, the runway and control tower's lights went dark. There was a total blackout. Technicians spent the next hour getting another generator running while the aircraft circled aimlessly above. The airplane made several unsuccessful landing attempts using its navigation system. But, unable to wait any longer, it headed for Sierra Leone and landed there, leaving many passengers stranded. It was the second time the runway and control tower were in total blackout.

Pulling the Monrovia route

The incident may not be unconnected to why Air France announced on March 11 that it was suspending flights to Liberia from the end of April. Poor profitability and the country's current geopolitical situation were among the reasons cited for the suspension.

"On March 9 2022, Mr. Jean-Marc Pouchol, Air France Vice President for Africa, and Mr Jean-Luc Mevellec, regional Director of West Africa, invited and met with Hon. Samuel A. Wlue, Minister of Transport, Republic of Liberia at Charles De Gaulle Airport, Paris, France to inform him about the Air France operations to Liberia," according to an official statement. "Air France has decided to suspend its flights to Monrovia, Liberia, as of the end of April 2022."

Mali crisis to blame?

But claims in Liberian media indicated the airline's decision was partly due to the risk posed to the lives of its passengers and properties by the lack of a stable power supply. George Yuoh, the airport's finance chief, debunked poor airport management for Air France's departure, citing the crisis in Mali as the cause. Mali has been an epicenter of regional conflict and instability over the past ten years. France intervened to help combat terrorism in the country, but an internal ethnic conflict birthed and exploded in everyone's face. As a result, Mali's government, in February 2022, expelled France and its ambassador.

"All the speculations that air France is leaving because of poor management are far from the truth," he told DW . "The truth is, Air France was here because of its operation in Mali's capital, Bamako. In February, when things became tenuous in Mali to the point where the Malian government expelled the French troops, Air France pulled out as well. There was no need to come to Liberia again," he added.

Dark welcome

But on March 28, Liberia's president, George Weah, and other government officials arrived at a pitch-black airport on returning from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where they participated in Expo Dubai. A day later, travelers were again thrown into pitch darkness at the airport, forcing them to use their cellphone flashlights while waiting for their flights to depart.

Various airlines and workers were kicking back by canceling or scaling down their flights. The unstable power supply at the airport has resulted in major airlines diverting flights to neighbouring countries, including Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast. As a result, passengers had to spend extra money traveling from nearby countries.

Turbulent times

Liberian economist David Fehart told DW that Air France's departure was a national economic loss to the country. "It's a hurt for us because it limits inflow and outflow of people," Fehart said. "When I look at the airport and I go and see other airports and see the number of flights going in and out, I wonder why things are not happening like that for us? So if they are pulling out, it means there's an absence of income. When a plane comes in, it pays landing fees, parking fees, they buy fuel and their employees use the hotels and so that will be a loss in revenue," Fehart added.

Air France — like many other airlines — has been going through turbulent times flying to Liberia. In 2012, the airline incurred almost $500,000 (€459,000) in damages due to the poor and dilapidated condition of the runway. This prompted the airline to leave the country, after which the Liberian government upgraded the runway. Air France returned to Liberia just two years ago. But close-up video footage of the airport's runway filmed by DW on March 16, 2022, again suggested that it is in poor condition.

Need for investments

In-depth findings reveal that many African countries need to invest more in on-ground physical infrastructure to make their airports suitable for operations, especially the landing of wide-bodied aircraft. Certain aircraft require a stipulated minimum runway standard to land safely and without putting passengers' lives at risk. Having a robust infrastructure helps aviation thrive in such a locality. In some parts of Africa, investment in airport infrastructure is meagre — a reason why some countries keep popping up on lists of the most horrible airports in Africa.

In 2021, Sudan's Khartoum International Airport, Kinshasa N'djili International Airport in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya's Tripoli International Airport, Dar es Salaam's Julius Nyerere International Airport, and Chad's N'Djamena International Airport topped a list of the worst airports in the continent, according to Best Airports of 2017: Africa (sleepinginairports.net) survey. Others included Luanda Quatro de Fevereiro International Airport, Angola, Cairo International Airport Egypt, Juba International Airport, South Sudan, and Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos.

Five years before that list was published, Nigeria's Port Harcourt International Airport; Mauritania's Nouakchott International Airport; Cameroon's Douala International Airport, Tanzania's Zanzibar Abeid Amani Kaume International Airport; Togo's Lome Tokoin Airport; and Morocco's Marrakesh Menara Airport, were named the world's worst airports in the region. Those enlisted in 2021 were also a part of these. Some of the countries which pop up on the lists are not due to on-ground infrastructure challenges but relaxed regulatory frameworks. Nigeria is one of them.

Not all gloom

Some African countries are investing heavily in on-ground infrastructure, thereby measuring up to international standards. These include Ethiopia, Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, and Namibia. Countries like Liberia, South Sudan, and others that keep making the world-worst airport list need more investments to be pumped into their on-ground structures. But not many countries can afford such luxury given the economic hardship experienced in the past three years.

Beautiful terminals not enough

Airports Council International — a major global aviation regulator that seeks to promote excellence in the aviation industry — says parameters for assessing airports goes beyond the on-ground infrastructure. Human elements such as airport staffers' attitudes, customer service elements, and operation processes are major considerations in the ratings of airports.

That is why Egypt, with its beautiful terminals and on-ground infrastructure, popped up in the worst African airport surveys carried out in 2016, 2018, and 2021. Its touch-points are customer-unfriendly due to its members of staff being uncaring, rude, and unhelpful, so people who travel through the airport feel unsafe, emotionally drained, and insecure.

Dominic Andoh, an aviation analyst, and Managing Editor, Aviation Ghana, told DW that if Egypt would reap benefits from its on-ground infrastructure investments, it needs to rework and improve its customer service, which includes how the airport staff talk to people and the way they handle people's bags to avoid pilfering. "All those ones count if they are going to benefit from the on-ground infrastructure," he said.

Nigeria's Lagos — MM1 and MM2 — airports have constantly featured on such lists over the last five years due to connection problems between both terminals. Transiting from one airport to the other can be challenging for travelers. The customs and immigration clearance at MM1 is cumbersome. For example, it takes a traveler at Ghana's Kotoka International Airport between 45 to 60 minutes to go through all the traveling processes and then board an aircraft. However, in Nigeria, it takes between two and half to three hours for the same procedure. Travelers in various surveys in the last five years lament that after going through all the processes at the Nigerian airport, they become so emotionally, mentally, and physically drained by the time of boarding their flights.

Andoh, the aviation analyst, recommends that Nigeria and other countries in the region learn from Ghana. The latter established a limited liability company responsible for managing all airports, so it is a profit-oriented company and operates like a private entity. "If Nigeria is free to establish a limited liability company devoid of government control which would oversee all the airports, then that company would be responsible for making all the key decisions," Andoh said.

He said managers of such a company know that they will be judged based on how profitable they are; so will not spend 10 minutes processing one passenger at the airport. Andoh told DW that such a firm would ensure it puts structures that make processing a passenger per minute or two possible to boost revenue for the airport and the government and to ensure that the airport is run profitably and professionally.

Culture of pilfering

Again, some of the African airports that make the notoriety list is due to a pilfering culture.South Africa's OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nigeria's Murtala Muhammed, and Port Harcourt International Airport, among others, are known for tampering with passengers' luggage; pilfering, and endemic corruption.

Some luggage disappears, never to be found. On December 31, 2018, Christoph Groenen called out the OR Tambo airport on Twitter for breaking into his luggage. "Stuffs get stolen in the tractor wagons on the way to the planes. I once felt from Joburg in a big rainstorm. When I got to PE my bag was broken into, and the inside content was soaking wet," Gronen tweeted. He went on to say: "They do it outside. I also think they steal inside the plane cargo holds when packing."

Dealing with culprits

On October 12, 2018, Gerhard Viljoen also complained on Twitter that "my brother's son also had stuffs stolen and the [OR Tambo] airport company simply sent him to the police who openly told him the paperwork is simply a procedure and won't bring any results. Why not rather fix your broken system!" A frustrated Viljoen wrote. There have been regular complaints about pilfering at the Tambo airport within the last six years, while Jomo Kenyatta airport is notorious for endemic theft.

Dominic Andoh, Managing Editor of Aviation, Ghana, and an aviation analyst, told DW regulators of the aviation industry should harshly sanction ground handling companies for such airlines. "If there are issues with these companies, airlines should feel free to report to the regulators. And the regulators should sanction the company and punish the key staffs who were on duty that day. That will serve as a deterrent for pilfering in our airports in Africa," he said.

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