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Moshoeshoe I airport faces closure

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  • as facilities crumble barely two years after “refurbishment” by Chinese company 

Pascalinah Kabi

MOSHOESHOE I International Airport, the country’s only international airport, faces forced closure by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) due to several years of neglect which have left its facilities in a state of disrepair, the Lesotho Times can reveal.

The Director of Civil Aviation Department, Motsoale Lesupi, this week told this publication that the government was now in a race against time to refurbish the “collapsing” airport by next year, failing which it would be closed or downgraded to a domestic airport catering only for local flights.

Mr Lesupi said the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) had now been awarded a tender to refurbish the airport at an estimated cost of M500 million.

Should the work not be finished on time for an inspection by the ICAO sometime next year, the airport could be forcibly closed by the international body, tasked with regulating all international aviation activities, he said.

Its closure will create a massive crisis as new travel arrangements would have to be made for His Majesty King Letsie III, Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro, ministers, government officials, diplomats, captains of industry and other ordinary travellers who rely on the airport for international travel.

State officials could alternatively resort to using military planes, which in itself would be a logistical nightmare, because special permits to fly such planes into South Africa would have to be obtained to avoid conflict with that country’s defence force.

More likely, they will be forced to travel long distances by road to international airports in South Africa.

The ailing tourism sector, which is already reeling from the Coronavirus-induced slowdown in business activities, would be thrown into further turmoil by the closure of the airport.

This publication has established that ICAO initially wanted to close the airport this year due to successive governments’ failure to address concerns it raised in its 2014 audit of the airport facilities.

Commenting on the perilous situation facing the airport, Mr Lesupi said, “We were audited in 2014 and I am not ashamed to tell the truth that we performed so poorly and got a score of 21, 82 percent”.

“It is our responsibility to advise our government accordingly. We know that when ICAO says please improve on one and two things, we have to do that because certain aspects cannot be compromised,” Mr Lesupi said.

He said the country got a temporary reprieve after the previous Thomas Thabane administration pleaded with ICAO to postpone this year’s audit which would have forced the closure of the airport.

Prior to its collapse in May this year, the Thabane government had two months earlier sent a high-powered delegation to ICAO’s Montreal, Canada, head office to persuade the world aviation body to postpone the audit to give Lesotho time to address serious concerns that it has constantly raised over the years.

The delegation was led by then Transport Minister Keketso Sello. Following the collapse of the Thabane government and the advent of the Moeketsi Majoro administration, Mr Sello was moved to the Small Business Development, Cooperatives and Marketing portfolio. Mr Tšoeu Mokeretla is now the transport minister.

“We stressed to the government that we were extremely worried that given the conditions at the airport, it was likely to be closed had the ICAO come for an audit this year.

“Our government sent the (then) minister of transport to plead with ICAO and convince them to postpone the audit to give us time to address the concerns they raised in their previous reports. It was not easy but it was done and ICAO reluctantly agreed to postpone the audit,” Mr Lesupi said.

Following the postponement of the ICAO audit to sometime next year, the government now faces a race against time to address several concerns first raised by the international aviation body in 2014. Among these are lack of adequate security, the refurbishment of dilapidated buildings, rehabilitating the runway as well as the ablution facilities.

A tour of the airport by this publication last week revealed that the government will have its work cut out to avoid the closure of the airport due to the extent of the dilapidation of facilities.

The floors of some of the buildings have turned an unsightly green with algae. They are also flooded with water, which has either leaked in due to broken down pipes or as a result of the heavy rains that have been pounding Maseru and its environs in recent days. Some of the wooden doors are decaying due to high moisture content.

Some of the walls are covered in grime and there are red markings which appear to have been drawn by a graffiti artist.

Looking up, one will not fail to notice ceilings which have been blown off, exposing loose electric cables and leaky roofs which enable rain water to come gushing down into the building.

The restaurant floor is also covered in pools of dirty water and passengers are currently not being served any meals due to the unhygienic and uninhabitable state of the building.

Probably the worst signs of the dilapidation are at the toilets. One’s nostrils are immediately assailed by a pungent stench the minute they enter the toilets. The toilets, urinals and sinks are all covered with large black refuse bags. The airport management has declared the ablution facilities “unserviceable” and says new facilities are required to replace them.

The x-ray machine for scanning passengers’ luggage to ensure that they are not transporting illegal goods such as drugs is not working.

Some passengers who recently used the airport told this publication that they were asked to open their luggage for physical inspection by airport staffers.

What is perplexing is that the airport is in this sorry state despite the previous government controversially awarding a M2, 8 million tender to a Chinese-owned construction company, Chun Ye (Pty) Ltd, to refurbish the VIP and VVIP lounges at the airport.

Chun Ye was awarded the tender in May 2018, through a selective tendering process by the Ministry of Public Works.  The firm worked on the facility from 11 June to 14 July 2018. It had been shortlisted in the selective tendering process alongside two other Chinese companies, Jiang & MT Engineering and Debris Inc. (Pty) Ltd.

Chu Ye (Pty) Ltd “refurbished” the airport’s VIP and VVIP lounges ahead of the 12th Stop Cervical, Breast and Prostate Cancers in Africa (SCCA) Conference held in Maseru from 22 to 25 July 2018.

It had been anticipated that three former American presidents, Bill Clinton, George Walker Bush and Barrack Obama would attend the conference, hosted by then First Lady ‘Maesaiah Thabane, alongside their spouses Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama respectively. The facilities had been refurbished in anticipation of their arrival as announced by then Health Minister Nkaku Kabi at the time.

Even though the former American presidents and their spouses ended up not coming, the cancer event still attracted several high-profile guests including first ladies from several African countries.

But barely two years later, the upgraded facilities which were also meant to generally improve the outlook of the airport and promote more international airline arrivals, are now in a sorry state largely as a result of the poor workmanship by the contracted firm.

Commenting on the state of the airport, Mr Lesupi this week said, “It is true that there is water flowing all over at the terminal building and the roofing has serious leakage problems”.

“You also find water sipping into the restaurant and toilets. Most of the toilets have become unserviceable. Our runways are not in good shape. I do not know if you are also aware that we have a lift to enable passengers to access the upper areas of the airport but that lift has not been working. These are some of the areas which have to be rehabilitated.”

Mr Lesupi said due to poor infrastructure and other serious concerns, ICAO did not have any kind words for Lesotho when it last audited the airport in 2014.

“The results of the audit were far from impressive. The problems in Lesotho’s aviation industry are very heartbreaking. But a lay person who travels by road will never see that. They just see a plane flying in and out but the issues go deeper than that. One challenge is that aviation is a very dynamic industry; it keeps changing and we have to adapt to those changes to have safe skies.

“For example, we have the challenge of drug and human traffickers. We always have to be a step ahead because we are a port of entry and may be exposed to such criminal activities. If our staff do not receive constant training, we could end up being targeted as the weak link by criminal syndicates.

“Most of the time we are unable to comply with ICAO standards not because we do not know what to do but because we have huge funding limitations.

“Aviation is a very expensive industry. So, the estimated cost of the airport rehabilitation is M500 million. The 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 to sacrifice the little it had to fund the rehabilitation of the airport,” Mr Lesupi said.

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