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Six months may be unrealistic a time for a complete overhaul of the international gateway to Sierra Leone in readiness for the country’s 50th Independence Anniversary, but the Lungi International Airport management is already facing up to the big challenge.
The runway is currently undergoing resurfacing and new ground handling agents, British owned Sky Handling Partner Ltd, have brought in new equipment to facilitate movement from landing aircrafts to the airport Customs. Visible in white, some of the equipment includes high loaders, belt loaders, motorised passenger steps with self-propelled canopy and tower tractors.
“We want to combine these new machines with the old ones, which were owned by SNA (Sierra National Airline) and needed some repair work, so we can have enough to meet increase in the volume of arrivals and even have standbys in case of breakdowns,” said Alan Vincens, General Manager of Sky Handling Partner.
Since the demise of SNA in 2004, Sierra Leone has not owned another airplane. But with Heads of State and various VIPs and dignitaries already making the 50th Anniversary guest list, the Lungi International Airport is expected to host a flight of private presidential jets and will probably be one of the hot spots of the grand occasion.
A real test case will be in the coming November, when Sierra Leone hosts the Miss ECOWAS Beauty Pageant 2010 featuring some 15 countries, 30 contestants, ECOWAS President and ministers of government among others. After that, another litmus test comes in December, which is usually the busiest period for the airport with an influx of flights and holiday makers from the Diaspora.
“The Airport Authority will do some facelift, but they are not yet specific about the volume of rehabilitation they have funds for,” said the Minister of Transport and Aviation, Capt. Allieu Pat-Sowe, whose ministry supervises the airport.
But the minister is specific about the installation of drugs and explosives detecting machines and the procurement of modern security equipment for the airport.
However, according to Dr. William Konteh, Chairman of the Sierra Leone 50th Anniversary Celebrations Committee, the expectations of the committee regarding the upgrade of the airport are high, and go beyond merely procuring modern machines to re-orientating the mindset of the workers.
“The airport is the first and last impression about our country. When visitors come into our country we want to give them a positive and lasting impression of a nation that is moving forward, and that should start from the moment they enter our airstrip,” said Dr. Konteh.
Dr. Konteh, whose 50th Anniversary Hospitality sub-committee just returned from a two-day visit to the airport, said there is need for a thorough rebranding of the facility as starter.
“There’s a chaotic mix of commercial advertisements outside and inside the airport, and that area needs to be addressed as soon as possible. As a Committee, we are going to replace the outlook with well crafted headlines and messages that would reflect the beauties of Sierra Leone and the 50th Independence Anniversary campaign,” he said.
Dr. Konteh said his committee held talks with the airport management to address other important issues such as ensuring the adherence to Standard Operating Procedures of the airport systems, refurnishing the VIP lounges, security of passengers/visitors and their baggages, training for staff, fire fighting capacity of the airport, access to health care and sanitation within the airport, the need to effectively manage the porter, trolley and landing cards systems, provision of national electricity and water supply, airport perimeter fencing, and repairing of the roads.
“These are all issues we intend to prioritise, and we’ll approach well meaning organizations and the relevant government ministries to help us address them in time for the 50th Anniversary Celebrations,” said Dr. Konteh.
There are also plans to renovate the Presidential Lounge and construct what would be named a Golden Jubilee Lounge near it.
The 50th Independence Anniversary Celebration is a year-long programme, starting from January 1st to December 31st 2011, but, according to the Executive Secretary of the Committee- Yeniva Sisay-Sogbeh, any system changes to the airport should be maintained as best practice onwards.
“For example, if the porter service is creatively well-controlled, we would avoid the embarrassment of unsolicited help and this will reduce loss of property and harassment of passengers/visitors. This is best practice that should be maintained even after 2011,” she said.
A local newspaper recently report that five workers of new ground handlers, Sky Handling Partner, have been indicted on allegations of tampering with passengers’ baggages and ‘carted away assorted items…’.
But, above all, the major problem for people visiting the country is crossing over from the airport to the city of Freetown. There are currently only two ferries plying the Lungi-Ferry Junction waters – MV Freetown and MV Mahera. In fact, the latter was commissioned on Sunday by the Minister of Transport and Aviation, after weeks of repair work. In addition UT Air is the only hovercraft service available for now.
However, Dr. Konteh said his Committee has engaged organizations such as the UN mission in the country to help with air services and vehicles.
By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)
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