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July 03, 2013

Liberia Pledges to Upgrade International Airport

by Anne Look

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says the country needs to upgrade its international airport to meet international standards.  Liberia's aviation chief has warned that the airport could lose flights due to the poor state of its runway and its inadequately trained staff.

Johnson Sirleaf answered questions on state radio Tuesday about what she said is the deplorable condition of Roberts International Airport in the capital, Monrovia, which has not had any major upgrades since 1970.

"The runway needs some serious work and we recognize that," she admitted. "We are making arrangements to start that work right after the rainy season…. I will do it as long as I am clear that the national interest is protected and that we have complied with our laws and regulations."

Aviation authorities say the runway is in particularly bad shape.  The asphalt has deteriorated, leading to dangerous cracks and potholes.

A U.S. aviation expert told VOA that this type of runway deterioration can affect a plane's ability to stop and lead to chunks of debris flying up into a plane's engine, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damages.

President Sirleaf also said the airport workers are not properly trained.  She said Air France has requested higher training standards after several incidents, including an employee hitting a plane with a vehicle, which the president said caused half a million dollars in damage.

"All of them went there just to get a job.  Nobody put them through any training, and that is a highly technical facility," she said.

Liberian travelers, like businessman Morrison Bryant, say they are disappointed.

"The government needs to do something.  Our airport does not compare to other airports.  It is very terrible.  Something needs to be done.  The runway is bad.  When we collect our bags, it is very hot.  I am not impressed at all," he said.

Other travelers, like Peter Samuels, said check-in and security procedures are time-consuming and disorganized.

"This is an embarrassment. The airport needs serious help.  I think there is a need that a system be put in place.  There is no system at all," he said.

The airport was damaged during more than a decade of civil war that ended in 2003.

An airport employee, who asked not to give his name because he is not authorized to talk to the media, said Liberia has had other priorities since then.

"All is not lost.  This country is just from a war.  We needed to put resources in other areas.  I think the government will do something about the airport.  All hope is not lost," he said.

Major international carriers, like Brussels Airlines and British Airways, operate direct flights between Monrovia and Europe.  Delta Airlines operates a flight to and from New York that connects through Accra.  Several intra-African carriers also use the airport.

Chris Goater, Africa spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents 240 world airlines, says infrastructure is a key challenge for airlines flying on the continent.

"That's everything from obviously the airport and the runway to things like how the fuel is developed and delivered to the source and all kinds of issues like that.  Taking fuel, that's 20 percent more expensive in Africa on average than it is in the rest of the world," he said.

He said taxes and surcharges, as well as the risk of ground damage to aircraft, are also concerns for carriers operating on the continent.

Liberia's President Sirleaf said her government is currently reviewing several proposals from international firms to upgrade the Roberts airport.

The president's office says it has drafted a $326-million, 25-year plan to improve and maintain the facilities.

Prince Collins contributed to this report from Monrovia.