President George Weah chief aide has said that the government needs between US$20 to US$23 million to fix all the problems at the Robert International Airport.
At a press conference yesterday, the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Nathaniel McGill revealed that the problem with the Robert International Airport is not just recurrent electricity but also the airport apron — where aircrafts are parked, unloaded or loaded, refueled, boarded, or maintained is in dire need of urgent repair.
Min. McGill’s rare revelation which comes five years into the administration is being made just 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 on Air France and Brussels Airlines, has been faced with electricity challenges over the past months which at times leave the airport in absolute blackout.
It reportedly served 228,000 passengers annually in 2018, according to Wikipedia. Ongoing statistics are highly unavailable.
According to Min. McGill, the government has embarked on plans to address the airport electricity issue, at the same face without other key problems facing the airport that also deserve important attention.
“The problem at the airport is not just electricity but it’s holistic, including the apron which was never renovated during the over US$50 million RIA’s renovation project,” the Minister said.
“Information received says the new terminal and jet way cannot be used because where the planes park were never touched over the last 50 years. As a government, we are looking at the entire airport and solving those problems and it will cost around US$20 to US$23 million with the estimate done,” Mr. McGill said.
The President’s aide added that his boss is concerned about the reported power outage at the country’s only international airport and is poised to address the situation over the next six months.
Min. McGill added that the President will send the information to the Legislature for consideration, while assuring the public of the government’s commitment to addressing the situation.
The airport, which is expected to see another exorbitant fee for fixing, as before 2022 underwent two major upgrades under contract and financing secured by the then Sirleaf administration.
A new passenger terminal was built for US$50 million, while the runway was refurbished at a cost of US$30 million.
The new terminal had been regarded as the first up to date modern terminal ever at the RIA since the construction of that airport in the 1940s during the Second World War. It features two jet bridges, two escalators, two elevators, ten check-in counters, eight duty free stores, a restaurant and two luggage carousels among several other features.
The terminal was built to process 350,000 to 500,000 passengers per annum, a projection that the airport official has said suits the future air traffic needs of the Roberts International Airport (RIA).
But it is unclear whether that projection has ever been met.
While the runway and airfield lighting systems have been upgraded and that the runway is expected to support heavy loads to improve air safety. The existing asphalt aprons of 57,000m² was expected to be expected to 85,000m².
Funding for the terminal project was provided by the China Export-Import (EXIM) through a US$49.8 million concessional loan, while the runway refurbishment project received funding of US$20 million from the Saudi Fund for Development, US$10 million from the Arab Bank for Economic Development for Africa, and US$3 million from the Government of Liberia.
The upgrade and expansion were aimed at expanding the airport and addressing safety issues.
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 patrols.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Finance, Samuel Tweah, who is re-echoing his cabinet colleague’s position, argues that the real issue is resolving the structural problem at the airport.
“It’s a blessing in disguise for the airport and we are taking a more holistic look at the challenges and solving them,” Min. Tweah noted.
He added that the government is committed to solving the problem though it is a cost which was not prepared for now by this administration. He said resources meant for other things will now be moved to addressing the problem at the airport.
Also, the Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, Ledgerhood Rennie said the RIA has been in the news for the wrong reasons for the last few days, “it was during the president return from Dubai convened a meeting with the management and board to get first hand information on happenings at the airport.”
“We found out that the generator at the airport now was never built to run the new terminals. We have to look back at the over US$50 million spent by the previous administration as to whether it was spent wisely or not or it’s serving the purpose it was used for,” Min. Rennie who worked in the administration of Sirleaf as well..
RIA’s Board Chair, Musa Shannon said the other problems with the airport had been historical and inherited by his administration.
"We have been working with the cabinet ministers to find out the most important thing to be addressed and it’s the power issue,” Mr. Shannon said. " The power issue RIA has been put under control over the last few days though it was concerning for weeks."
He said the management is contemplating on bringing in solar panels in the future and other pieces of equipment that will help in resolving the power outage problem at the airport.
“We know that people of Liberia are worried and we hope to have them solved. Again, we know that the airport is everybody’s business and not one person and you can be assured that the airport is in good hands,” Mr. Shannon said.
The Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Liberia, Frank Musa Dean said from the security stand points the airport is saved for business and Liberians can travel in-and-out freely.
Mr. Dean said the joint security has established that the airport can be used anytime and has taken on the security at the airport.