Editor's note: An earlier version of this story wrong stated the incident date as April 28, instead of April 27.
A late-night power outage on April 27, at the Roberts International Airport, forced an inbound Brussels Airlines flight to return to Freetown, from whence it came.
The incident caused panic over the safety of the passengers aboard the aircraft. The power outage, which lasted for about 30 minutes, according to the RIA’s Acting Managing Director, Martin Hayes, was due to a power switchover at the Roberts Flight Information Region (FIR). The FIR provides electricity for the RIA control tower and the runway.
The aircraft was scheduled to land at about 7:15 p.m. So when an anonymous passenger aboard Brussels Airlines shared a video recording of the in-flight announcement, saying that “the airport in Monrovia is closed because there is no electricity” and that the aircraft could not make contact with the control tower, some people feared the worst and began calling for prayers for the safety of the passengers on board. Others decried the situation as an embarrassment to the airport management, the Government of Liberia, and the country at large.
"As our captain informed you, the airport in Monrovia is closed because there is no electricity at the moment. They are trying to fix it, but we had some fuel to do a few miles flyaround,” said a female member of the cabin crew aboard the Brussels Airlines flight as the aircraft cruised the airspace near the RIA, waiting for a signal to descend. Typically, in the instance of a delay to land, an aircraft would circle the airspace until given the signal. This could take sometimes thirty minutes, depending on instructions from the airport’s control tower.
“But until now, we don't have any contact with the airport of Monrovia,” the announcer continued, “so we have decided to go back to Freetown. In Freetown, we will see if we can take some fuel and what the decision will be onwards. So if you have any questions, please do not ask our cabin crew at the moment. From the moment we have news, we will come back to you because once landed, we need to organize fuel, we need to organize the flight again. So this takes a bit of time. So, as soon we have information, we will come back to you. "
The announcement did not bode well for some passengers on the flight, especially those who boarded the aircraft in Freetown. For them, a return to Freetown would cause them to be late for connecting flights in Brussels to destinations onward. This inconvenience caused a huge row in-flight as some passengers decried what they described as ineptitude on the part of the RIA management and, by extension the George Manneh Weah administration. Meanwhile, another group vehemently defended the Weah administration against their frustrated fellow passengers.
“And I know some of you have tomorrow morning a connecting flight out of Brussels --- you may be worried about that also,” the announcer said. So, from the moment any decision taken in Freetown, we will come back to you with all the information needed. Thank you for that,” she concluded.
The latest electricity problem at the Robert International Airport comes after former President Ellen Johnson - Sirleaf's blamed darkness at the RIA for failure of more dignitaries to attend the funeral of statement Dr. Amos Sawyer, former interim of Liberia.
“I received many calls from people who wanted to attend the funeral of Dr. Sawyer, but I do not see them here. Maybe RIA was dark,” Former President Sirleaf said.
The airport, which is the nation's busiest and most important aviation facility, currently hosting the country's only scheduled commercial airline services, with direct connections to several major cities in West Africa as well as flights to Europe has been faced with electricity challenges over the past months which at times leave the airport in an absolute blackout. It reportedly served 228,000 passengers annually in 2018, according to Wikipedia. Ongoing statistics are highly unavailable.
For those people on the other side of the airport terminal awaiting the arrival of their inbound friends and loved ones, the level of uncertainty sparked viral speculations about whether or not the aircraft would return from Freetown the same night or the following morning.
According to Mr. Hayes, the FIR was switching over from its solar power system to its generator power system. “The runway lights are switched on from within the control tower. When the power goes off and is turned back on, it takes time for the entire lighting and control tower system to be fully restored,” he told the Daily Observer in a telephone interview on Wednesday evening, April 28.
During the 30-minute power outage, just as Brussels Airlines decided to return to Freetown from whence it came, another inbound aircraft, Air France, entered the airspace in time as the lights were restored on the runway. Brussels Airlines aircraft did return to Freetown and returned again to RIA at about shortly before 10 pm.
The Roberts International Airport, which is now facing serious electricity problems, was built in 1942, via a Defense Pact with the United States. It was originally built by the U.S. government as an Air Force base as part of these activities. The runway was built long enough for B-47 Stratojet bombers to land for refueling, giving Liberia what was for many years the longest runway in Africa.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had lunch with President Edwin J. Barclay at Roberts Field during his visit to Liberia in January 1943. From 1943 to the end of World War II in 1945, Roberts Field Airport, as it was then known, served as an alternative base for a contingent of 26 Squadron SAAF which flew Vickers Wellington bombers on anti-submarine (U-Boat) and convoy escort patrol.