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Govt in race against time to avert airport closure: Lesupi

 

MOSHOESHOE I International Airport, the country’s only international airport, faces forced closure by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

ICAO is unhappy with the government’s failure to maintain high standards at the airport. The facilities are run down and in a state of disrepair.

The government has until next year to refurbish the airport to prevent its closure. This week Lesotho Times (LT) Senior Reporter Pascalinah Kabi sat down with the Director of Civil Aviation, Motsoale Lesupi to find out what needs to be done and when the government will have refurbished the airport to meet international standards.

Below are the excerpts of the interview:

LT: What work does the Civil Aviation department do in relation to the Moshoeshoe I International Airport? 

Mr Lesupi: Civil aviation is very broad term but it refers to anything that has to do with movement of aircraft in the sky. However, in Lesotho, we mostly refer to passengers and cargo airplanes, which also include private aircraft. We are also a regulatory body. We regulate even drones and air balloons because as long as they are within our airspace, there are certain controls and measures that must be in place to avoid collisions that may happen.

Aviation should be understood in the context of airplanes and infrastructure. The infrastructure being the buildings, terminals, runways, navigational aids and everything that has to do with guiding flying. Now, our relationship with Moshoeshoe I Airport should be that of a regulator and a service provider. The department of civil aviation is the regulator and Moshoeshoe I is the service provider.

However, we are aware of challenges of that kind of relationship and we are working to rectify it. We are in the process of establishing the Civil Aviation Authority to rectify it.

LT: What are these challenges that the establishment of the Civil Aviation Authority is seeking to address?

Mr Lesupi: The lay person may not see them but the problems are heartbreaking. They just see a plane flying in and out but it goes deeper than that. The challenges that we face are that, firstly, civil aviation is by nature dynamic. It keeps changing and we must adapt to those changes to have safe skies. For example, there are drug and human being traffickers. We must be a step ahead in aviation because we are also a port of entry where we may be exposed to such activities. One needs training to be up to date. Otherwise, we are open to being identified as the weak points… and likely be used as a getaway by syndicates.

Secondly, when it comes to staffing, the government follows certain procedures and the Civil Aviation department is not exempted. This creates a huge problem because while it is indeed true that we are a government department, aviation is being regulated by ICAO.

ICAO audits the department of Civil Aviation as a regulator and also audits Moshoeshoe I Airport as the service provider. Most of the time we are unable to adhere to ICAO standards, not because we do not know what to do but we have huge limitations as raised by the ICAO… This is why we must have a Civil Aviation Authority…

If we had the Civil Aviation Authority, our airport would not be in that condition. It is in a bad shape; our government is doing the best it can do but with the Civil Aviation Authority, it would be in a good state.

LT: Are you saying Lesotho is a weak link in the fight against human and drug trafficking? 

Mr Lesupi: I am not saying that but rather, that it has weaknesses that can be used by syndicates. I am proud that the government has taken a bold step in the fight against human trafficking. The escorting undocumented people out of the country by the Home Affairs Minister (Motlalentoa Letsosa) last week will restore the world’s trust in us. Airlines are the most important component in “the world” that I am referring to.

We are expecting airlines to use our facility by flying passengers in and out of the country and as long as they doubt or question our security, it means that our passengers and planes are not safe and that anything can happen to our planes and passengers. That will make us less attractive when instead, we want more traffic. This will lead to the economic development of our country in so many ways. Whenever the airplanes land, to us that is money in the form of landing fees while passengers will also be using our hotels, lodges and guest houses during their stay in Lesotho. It is money in the sense that some of those passengers are tourists…, so we must be careful of what happens at the airport.

LT: How much are the landing fees? 

Mr Lesupi: They differ. I cannot really recall them by heart right now but they are based on the weight of the aircraft. The bigger the size, the more you pay. Currently we are charging very old charges. However, we have requested to increase the charges so that we get better revenue.

LT: The Moshoeshoe I International Airport is in a deplorable state. Toilets are not working, there is no water and the seats in the waiting lounge are unusable. Why is it in this situation and why has the situation not been addressed over the years? 

Mr Lesupi: That is an accurate analysis of the situation at Moshoeshoe I but I can assure you now that there is going to be change. The government has decided to engage ACSA to repair the facilities. There is water flowing all over the terminal; the roofing has serious leakages. You go to the restaurant; you will see the water dripping in the toilets… so many of them are unserviceable and indeed those are the components that the government is serious about improving. We already have a plan of activity in terms of what is going to be done and I can assure you with great confidence that come 2021, you will begin to see real changes.

LT: When was the last time Lesotho was audited by the ICAO, what were the results of that audit?

 Mr Lesupi: The results of the audit were far from being impressive and what I can tell you; rather than to dwell on the past, is that the government is taking all the steps to correct the wrongs. For example, the audit talked about the need for a Civil Aviation Authority and the government is fully behind its establishment. The audit also raised concerns on the legislation regulating security issues at the airport and that is already happening. The issue of staffing is being attended to as we speak.

I am happy that the government is now aware that civil aviation matters cannot be handled as business as usual. Aviation is governed outside the country by ICAO. We must comply because failure to comply will lead to our airport operating like a domestic airport; no planes will be coming in because of security and safety matters. The government is working on addressing those issues. As the Director of Civil Aviation, I am happy to be part of the reformation of our airport or the aviation sector in Lesotho.

LT: There was a 2016 deal with the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development to upgrade Moshoeshoe I International Airport. What happened to that deal? 

Mr Lesupi: In as much as I was neither part of that deal nor the arrangement of that time, the parties involved agreed that there has to be an updated feasibility study as the one done in 2014 reflected a low economic rate of return. However, considering the changes that we have now, it was obvious that the economic rate of return was going to improve. For example, we did not have the production of salmon, now we have the salmon and production of our own trout has increased. Such things mean a lot in aviation because those are the factors that are going to influence the cargo.

Those are the exports for the international market. We have positive things that are happening in our country, like the National University of Lesotho (NUL) Innovation Hub which has ambitions of producing more for the international market. Those things were not there when the study was conducted and these are the factors that are being taken into account… Unfortunately, the country was not able to get the upgraded economic rate of return at that time and investors do not want to see their money being wasted.

They want to see profits and unfortunately, they had to pull out of the deal of upgrading the airport. But right now, we are talking about the rehabilitation as the immediate measure to address the immediate deficiencies. The vision is that either after or parallel, we are going to have the upgrade because some of the activities can run parallel.

…That terminal as it is now having to be upgraded to support the vision of our country to have our airport as a regional hub. Based on our experience, we could see that this is the potential that we have and the study that was conducted by ACSA confirmed that Moshoeshoe I can be a regional hub.

LT: Is ACSA a company that has partnered with the Lesotho government to upgrade Moshoeshoe I International Airport or what is the deal there? 

Mr Lesupi: ACSA is a professional company that specialises in airports and will assist and ensure that our airport meet the standards. We have a memorandum of study with them, through which we assist each other on technical matters. We invited them to assist us in identifying the key deficiencies at Moshoeshoe I and how they can be handled. Now that we are faced with the crisis that our airport is in…, the government found it more appropriate to engage ACSA as quick measure to address this problem.

LT: How much is this partnership going to cost Lesotho? 

Mr Lesupi: Aviation is an expensive industry. It takes M1, 4 million to train one of our highest-ranking officers here, Flight Operations Inspector. It is even worse when it comes to infrastructure. So, the estimated cost of the airport rehabilitation is expected to be within M500 million.

LT: What does the rehabilitation entail? Does it include the runway, infrastructure in general and staff training? What is the estimated M500 million going to do in terms of rehabilitation of the airport? 

Mr Lesupi: The rehabilitation process is addressing the deficiencies that we have at the airport as is. We have our runways that are in a poor shape… I do not even know if you are aware, we have an elevator at the terminal to enable passengers to access the upper areas of the airport but it has not been operating. So, that is part of the rehabilitation package. When we talk about the upgrade, that is a higher level. You are now introducing some of the things that we did not have as is. Our vision is to have big airplanes landing at Moshoeshoe I.

For now, they cannot land because the runway is short. It must be extended. We need the refueling system to be functional because big airlines expected to come to Lesotho operate bigger airplanes – 747s and so on – which cannot land now. Once you attract them to land into Lesotho, they need refueling in Lesotho. If not, then Lesotho becomes a costly destination because they would have to land in Lesotho and fly somewhere else to refuel, thereby attracting landing charges which do not come cheap… You also need to upgrade the terminal. Once you have the big airplanes moving in, you should also be considering that they are going to have passengers in transit and that terminal as it is, cannot handle that kind of traffic. That is an upgrade which is different from rehabilitating it.

LT: Is this estimated M500 million only earmarked for rehabilitation process? 

Mr Lesupi: Only for the resuscitation process. Airports are very costly and that is why I talked about training of staff to give you a good picture of how expensive aviation is. Can you imagine how many students do we have at NUL and elsewhere and how many of those can be sponsored by the money spend on training one aviation staffer. Establishing the authority will address this problem because we will be able to raise funds. Government is not able to do that and I understand. Aviation in general is prestigious profession and costly by nature.

LT: What are the timelines for the rehabilitation process? 

Mr Lesupi: We are starting next year. What we are concerned about now is addressing issues that may lead to the closure of the airport. Our activities are going to start from 2021, extending all the way to 2024.

LT: We are only a few weeks away from 2021, so which month are you talking about? 

Mr Lesupi: Some activities will begin at the end of the current financial year in March 2021 onwards.

LT: What assurances are you giving that the project will go ahead given that this is not the first time we are hearing about works being done at the airport then years go by with nothing happening? 

Mr Lesupi: This is a very difficult question because right now we are working on the paperwork to be signed, that is the memorandum of understanding and the contract with ACSA but in principle, we have agreed… My only assurance is that come to my office and we will be analysing with you in March 2021. Nobody wants to see Moshoeshoe I shutting down. You can imagine the implications of a shutdown and the effects on our economy. Our government does not want to see that, so perhaps one would say that is already an insurance on its own that definitely something will be done…

LT: Can the land accommodate all these new changes coming with the upgrade of the airport? 

Mr Lesupi: Considering the size of our country, if you look at South Africa and worldwide, you will find that airports are always under construction. There is always something new. And yes, indeed the land is big enough to accommodate even future developments.

LT: What is the social impact of this project; what do people from Mazenod and neighbouring areas stand to gain from the coming development? 

Mr Lesupi: I am told that we are inheriting a plan that had already been in place. There are short and long-term job opportunities. The airport is built on people’s fields and communities that sacrificed their lands will have great employment benefit, directly and indirectly. Indirectly there will be mushrooming of guest houses and perhaps even bigger hotels and that is where the community will be benefiting…

LT: Will the airport upgrade be complemented by the construction of roads leading to the airport because Lesotho will definitely need bigger roads to accommodate the traffic that will be going in and out of the airport?

 Mr Lesupi: I said earlier that aviation is costly. Now you are bringing another cost and that is why the government is now considering the Build-Operate and Transfer (BOT) Model. It says an investor will come in and identify activities within the economic zone that will help them recover costs and make profits.

The road is part of that package. It will not be wise for our government to take a loan because the BOT model has been tested in other countries like Turkey whose airports have been built through that relationship. What is important there is to make sure that the agreement is carefully worked through so that at end of the day the country and the people of Lesotho benefit.

LT: Is the estimated M500 million going to come from the government’s coffers or there is an investor behind it? 

Mr Lesupi: No, these are two different things. The estimated M500 million was set aside to address the immediate challenges and the immediate threat. The immediate threat is the looming closure of the airport. The government had no choice but had to sacrifice the little it has to make sure that it funds the rehabilitation of the airport.

LT: So, now the government is seeking investors for the upgrade? 

Mr Lesupi: Exactly. In fact, we were hopeful that we were going to get the investor who would bring in funds. We had proposals to have the BOT model but unfortunately, they failed to take off. On the other hand, the government had to attend to these immediate challenges and it had no choice except to find ways of funding the rehabilitation of the airport.

LT: You have not said when Lesotho was last audited by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. 

Mr Lesupi: We were audited in 2014 and I need not be ashamed of the truth that we had performed so poorly at 21, 82 percent and that is not good.

LT: At what intervals are the ICAO audits done? 

Mr Lesupi: The ICAO determines when to come. Sometimes, I think it may be influenced by the alarm, the red flags of airlines and passengers complaining… The ICAO personnel also travel and perhaps their observations do influence the audit. Remember that the audit is intended to enhance the safety and the security of aviation, you should not forget that accidents in aviation must be avoided as much as possible…

One life lost is one life too many and in aviation you are talking of more than one life at a go. So, the responsibility of the ICAO is to ensure that such incidents are avoided by being proactive, carrying out audits and from the audits you have the recommendations to improve which ever areas that need to be worked on.

LT: You keep portraying a picture of the closure of the airport. Why? 

Mr Lesupi: I am a professional and I know what leads to the closure of airports. It is our responsibility as the Civil Aviation department to advise our government accordingly. We know that certain aspects cannot be compromised in safety…

I am proud that when ICAO was coming for the audit, the government took the Civil Aviation department’s advice… and sent a delegation to ICAO. Our government dispatched the Minister of Transport to ICAO to convince them that the audit should be postponed while we address the concerns that had been raised in their reports. It was not easy but it was done and ICAO reluctantly accepted to postpone the audit.

LT: Is the pending launch of the X-ray machine at the airport part of efforts by the government to address challenges raised by the ICAO audit report? 

Mr Lesupi: That is correct. The machine scans luggage and detects things that ordinary searches would not be able to find. The machine is able to so while respecting the privacy of the passenger. Another machine for the arrivals is yet to come in but we are just double-checking because the luggage goes through screening at the point of origin too and now must be satisfied that indeed the passenger is not carrying anything unwanted.

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