By Alfred Koroma
First, let it be clear that the Government of Sierra Leone in agreement with Summa Construction Company has constructed a new Freetown International Airport separate from the old one.
It is neither an extension nor a rehabilitation of the existing Airport as claimed by bloggers on social media.
To prove this, Concord Times and other news media outlets have on Thursday 15 February taken a tour on both facilities together with the Deputy Minister of Transport and Aviation, Rex Bonapha and the Regional Manager of Summa Construction, Erdem Arikam.
The new edifice costs $270 million dollars and is being constructed on a signed build-operate and transfer agreement between the government of Sierra Leone and the Summa Airport (SL) Ltd. Summa is already in charge of the operations and management of the airport since January and will remain to manage the facility for 25 years.
But are the old and new airports in the same location?
Both the old Airports and the new one are located within the same town, Lungi, Port Loko District. But the new airport is entirely a new facility constructed in a different location. It has its entrance from the Port Loko Road away from where the old one is.
Why new airport and what’s the difference?
The new Freetown International Airport is bigger and more spacious and its technology is more advanced compared to the old one. The new aviation structure provides several facilities of acclaimed international standards that are not available in the old airport. It has a capacity to host up to over ten planes at every given point and about one million passengers yearly.
But the old airport is smaller and less spacious. It facilities do not meet international standards.
In fact, according to Rex Bonapha , the deputy Minister of Transport and Aviation, the nearly a century old airport has never been certified since its inception because of the its poor facilities. It is smaller in size. As a result, it is often chaotic when two more flights arrive together.
In 2006, Sierra Leone even failed the civil aviation safety audit, depicting the need for an advance civil aviation facility in the country.
The old Airport has not been able to meet present international aviation standards because it was not built for civil aviation purpose. The Airport was built way back in 1945 by the British Royal Airforce to serve as a military base for the Second World War. Government of Sierra Leone took over the facility after the British left.
In the words of the Deputy Minister of Transport and Aviation, the newly constructed Airport is a complete departure from the old one in times of technology, space, facilities and everything. The new Airport, he said, will place Sierra Leone in the aviation map.
So what else does the new Airport has to offer?
The new Airport offers several facilities that the old infrastructure does not provide – in times of size, space and technology.
The capacity of the new edifice can accommodate over ten planes at every given point in time. It can host up to 50,000 passengers monthly compared to 10,000 monthly using the old airport.
The facility provides a new runway that accommodates any flight irrespective of size or volume, and it can hold more than 200 vehicles, according to the Deputy Minister.
Unlike the old Airport where passengers walk in the airfield to get into the aircraft, the terminal building of the new airport has a secured air bridge through which passengers Walk to the airport craft. Passengers do not need to walk on foot in the airfield to get to the aircraft. They use the tunnel and the air bridge to get into the air craft.
In addition, the Airport has a solar energy that supports terminal buildings and runway. It provides a cargo shell that meets international standards, a facility that the old Airport does not have.
The departure launch of the new terminal building is bigger and has a spacious restaurant. It has a separate ministerial launch for diplomats, an immigration area for arrivals, separate area for departures, a coffee area, smoking boot and a separate space for Muslim passengers who might want to observe prayers while at the Airport.
When will we start using the new airport?
Construction work is still going on there, but almost 90 percent complete. According to the Deputy Minister, President Bio will commission the airport next month, the 3rd of March, 2023. The airport may start functioning at that time. But the Deputy Minister says staff recruited will have to be properly trained with international standards before they start operating the new facility.
But, what will happen to the old Airport?
So far, we don’t know what exactly will happen to the old Airport. But we have some sense of some government considerations.
According to Rex Bonapha, the New Direction Government is discussing on whether to use the old infrastructure as a military air force wing that would accommodate private planes or use it as ECOWAS aircraft maintenance site. He also said they are in talks with a lot of companies that intends bringing internal air taxis into the country. But emphasized: “For now we are intending to deploy the air wing of the military.”
What about the staff in the old airport?
There are rumors that many of the workers in the old airport have been sacked. But this is not true, according to the Deputy Minister of Transportation and Aviation.
Speaking to a convoy of journalists in Lungi, Bonapha stated that all the staff in the old airport will work in the new facility. “They are going to work in the new airport, he noted. “ No single person will be left behind.”
“We did not sack anybody. It’s the staff who requested for their terminal benefit. So it is just procedural. You can only qualify for terminal benefit if your service is terminated. We gave them termination letters to show we have terminated their old contract before giving them another offer letters for the new contract. So they are coming over to the new recruitment with a double package, the Minister told journalists.