Salone News

Air transport in Sierra Leone

27 December 2017 at 14:44 | 6977 views

By Desmond Mensah-Coker, Atlanta, USA.

Air transport service is considered one of the fastest growing areas of development in Africa.There is a strong link between air transport and economic growth and consequently, there are huge benefits to be derived from the development of the air transport industry. However, the economic activities from air transport would only materialize when the services are integrated with the appropriate policies, planning and implementation mechanisms. The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are actively promoting the African Open Skies Policy, which aims to enhance Africa’s economic growth and intraAfrican trade; but without national policies to guarantee the development of air transport services, countries in Africa will be completely left out from deriving any potential benefit from the air transport industry.

Sierra Leone has an International Airport at Lungi (photo) which serves international passenger and cargo flights to the country. However, there are no other functional airfields or aviation facilities available for domestic or regional air transport operations. The designated flag carrier, Sierra National Airlines – SNA, ceased operation in 2006 and since then, there has been no sustainable commercial air transport operator based in the country. The development of the air transport industry in Sierra Leone, identified as a neglected area of development, should be based on air transport policies that would address the need to connect people and markets. Once the demand for air transport services is established, the implementation of appropriate policies would be a vessel to facilitate growth in economic activities and improve the country’s competitiveness in the African Air Transport Industry.

The International Airport at Lungi, across an estuary from the capital city of Freetown is the only operating airport for international passenger and cargo traffic to the country. According to the Sierra Leone Airport Authority (SLAA), the airport handled about 200,000 passengers in 2016, a very low passenger traffic volume compared to other airports in the West African sub-region. Except for the operations at the International Airport, there is no other air transport facility in operation in the country.The air transport industry in Sierra Leone needs an analysis of the status of the industry and to devise strategies that would foster the development of commercial air transport services in the country. The main objectives should be to explore and investigate the following:

- To identify and evaluate the demand for domestic and regional air transport services.

- To evaluate how air transport liberalization can improve collaboration amongst the
regional airlines to enhance economic growth.

- To evaluate the investment required to meet the demand for domestic and regional
commercial air transport in Sierra Leone.

- To examine the extent to which commercial air transport can contributes to the economy of Sierra Leone.

The degradation of the aviation infrastructure in Sierra Leone has been gradual but dramatic. Air transport service within the country has declined to a level where it has become non-existent.

According to the Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority (SLCAA), domestic air transport was limited to seven (7) airfields namely; Hastings, Bo, Kenema, Yengema, Bonthe , Gbanbatoke and Kabala. These airfields were serving the gold and diamond mining areas in the east and south, and the bauxite and rutile mines in the south of the country. The airfield located in Kabala, north of the country was never effectively used as there was no air traffic in that area. Although there is a realization that these airfields could be rehabilitated and put back to use, nothing has been done and the air transport industry has been left behind in terms of development.

Sierra Leone does not have a national carrier, domestic flights are non-existent and the airfields are in a state of disrepair. The development of domestic air services in Sierra Leone is not relatively recent in comparison with other English-speaking countries in West Africa; nor did it follow the same pattern as in Ghana and Nigeria. The operations of Sierra Leone Airways (SLA) and the introduction of domestic flights in 1961 and 1962 illustrate the special function air services in the country played and could be described as the initial stage of air transport operations in the country.

The air transport industry is of strategic importance for economic growth in Africa in general and could be a primary instrument for economic development to Sierra Leone in particular. As the continents middle class grows, they become heavily dependent on air transport to link people with each other and to the rest of the world at large. Tourism is seen to be intricately linked to air transport as a means to enhance economic development and open easy access to the interior of the country. The Sierra Leone government is currently promoting tourism as a means of generating economic activity to enhance employment and growth which is a good policy. The tourism industry in Sierra Leone is generally concentrated around the peninsula in the Western
Area of the country, a region that features some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Recently however, the industry is being extended to include rural tourism, regarded as a new feature of tourism opportunities. In recent years the demand for eco-tourism and visits to unique and interesting sites in the countryside has featured prominently and air transport is poised to facilitate the opportunities for a more diverse tourist experience in the country.In order for the Air Transport Industry to grow, safety, security and efficiency should be the watch-ward for a sustainable industry that would support intra-African and international trade, tourism, cultural and social activities and the various businesses that would contribute significantly to Africa’s economic growth and prosperity.

Sierra Leone National Air Carrier:
The origin of air transport in Sierra Leone can be traced to the formation of the West African Airways Corporation (WAAC) back in 1946. WAAC was jointly owned by the governments of The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, all former British colonies in West Africa. The carrier was headquartered at the Airways House in Ikeja, Nigeria, and operated from 1946 to 1958 with its main hub located at Lagos Airport. It was dissolved on 30 September 1958 after all the partner countries decided to set up their own national airlines following their independence (Journal of the Sierra Leone Geographical Association - JSLGA, 1965). Nigeria, as the sole remaining major stockholder of the airline, continued the operations as WAAC Nigeria which
was eventually renamed Nigeria Airways and became the flag carrier of the country. Sierra Leone Airways was formed in early 1958 and a new agreement was signed in 1961 with British United Airways, who introduced the Twin Pioneer and then Heron aircraft on the domestic scheduled services. Later in 1974, the aircraft were replaced by two Britten Norman Tri-lander aircraft for domestic flights. The demise of Serra Leone Airways (renamed Sierra Leone Airlines) in 1987 effectively meant the end of domestic air services in the country (JSLGA,1990). In 1982 the Sierra Leone government entered into a partnership with Alia/Royal Jordanian Airlines, and re-launched Sierra Leone Airways as Sierra Leone Airlines. Following the suspension of operations by Sierra Leone Airlines in 1987, services from Freetown were later
resumed on 1 May 1990 under the new name; Sierra National Airlines – SNA.
As of January 2005, SNA operated international air transport services to the following
London (Gatwick Airport):
Amsterdam (Amsterdam Schiphol Airport)
Banjul (Banjul International Airport)
Monrovia (Roberts International Airport)
Conakry (Conakry International Airport)
Lagos (Murtala Muhammed International Airport)

However, Sierra National Airline’s operation was plagued with problems of non-payment of landing fees, handling and navigation charges. In early 2004 the airline also experienced problems with its United Kingdom sales and reservations structures which resulted in the suspension of flights to London. Scheduled flights between London Gatwick Airport and Lungi International Airport, Freetown, resumed on November 2004. In October 2004 Gold Coast Aviation (PTY) Ltd., a South African-based aviation company submitted a proposal to take over the operations of the SNA. Discussions were held with the Government of Sierra Leone abouttheir intent to start operation of a new airline in partnership with SNA from 19th November 2004. The operations with Gold Coast Aviation never materialized and were later cancelled. In
early 2005, the Sierra Leone Airports Authority claimed that SNA owed about US$800,000 in charges for landing fees, electricity, rent and ground handling services and complained that the refusal to pay the debts is affecting their operations (SLAA). The case went to court but the government stopped the process and in 2006, after a long period of insolvency, Sierra National Airlines ceased its operations as an airline.
Challenges in the Air Transport Industry in Africa:

In Africa, there is clearly a partial alignment between size of population, economy and air traffic. In general, countries with large populations and economies or small but rapidly growing populations and economies, represent an opportunity for the development of strong domestic (and/or international) networks (Chingosho, 2009). Although air transport can be a vital tool for economic development in Africa, it is plagued by high failure rate due to inadequate funding, poor infrastructure, restrictive government policies and high taxation. Other major challenges facing the industry are a lack of the required skilled and experienced workforce to sustain the projected growth in the industry. Additionally, a high accident rate, insecurity, conflict,corruption and lack of regional cooperation amongst the airlines are other factors affecting the
growth in the industry. These are challenges that need to be addressed in the air transport industry in order to achieve economic benefits. According to IATA, in 2010, Benin, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, and Togo all have development charges ranging from $9 to over $50 per passenger.

The Impact of Infrastructure Investments in Africa’s Development:
To a large extent, Africa is considered a preferred destination for foreign direct investment (FDI) and according to the World Bank: “FDI inflows to Africa rose for the second year running, up 5 per cent to $50 billion, making it one of the few regions that registered year-on-year growth in 2012” The World Bank also notes that most governments are keen to attract and facilitate investment as a means of enhancing economic productivity, capacity building and sustainable development. Going by the World Bank’s calculations, investment in aviation if well managed
should be able to meet the immediate needs on the continent. However, much more strategic investment would be required in the various sectors of commercial air transport to drive development in the industry and achieve more economic growth.
According to a statement from IATA in 2011; "Aviation already plays an essential role in Africa,supporting some 6.7 million jobs and $67.8 billion in economic activity". Similarly; “The development of surface transport across Africa has generated around 450,000 jobs and contributed more than $10 billion USD to Africa’s GDP in 2007” (ATAG, 2010). In a study by IATA in 2010 on air transport liberalization of 12 States in Africa, the report states that "Liberalization between the 12 countries is estimated to generate 155,100 jobs in aviation, tourism, and the wider economy and to contribute US$1.3 billion to annual GDP (about 0.07% of
the GDP of the 12 countries)."

Air Transport Infrastructure and Connectivity in Sierra Leone:
The Quality of air transport infrastructure indicator is one of the components of the Global Competitiveness Index published annually by the World Economic Forum (WEF, 2015). It represents an assessment of the quality of airports in a given country based on data from the WEF Executive Opinion Survey, a long-running and extensive survey tapping the opinions of over 14,000 business leaders in 144 countries. The score for air transport infrastructure quality is based on only one question. The respondents are asked to rate the passenger air transport in their country of operation on a scale from 1 (underdeveloped) to 7 (extensive and efficient by international standards). The individual responses are aggregated to produce a country score. For
that indicator, World Economic Forum provides data for Sierra Leone from 2012 to 2015. The average value for Sierra Leone during that period was 2.67 points with a minimum of 2.42 points in 2015 and a maximum of 2.79 points in 2013.

The total passengers arrival and departures in 2016 total about 200.000 with eleven airlines serving Lungi International Airport as listed below, (SLAA, 2017):

Airlines Destinations
Air Côte d’Ivoire Abidjan, Monrovia
Air France Conakry, Paris–Charles de Gaulle
ASKY Airlines Accra, Banjul
Arik Air Accra, Lagos, Monrovia
Brussels Airlines Brussels, Monrovia
Fly Mid Africa Accra, Banjul, Lagos
Kenya Airways Accra, Monrovia, Nairobi–Jomo Kenyatta
KLM Amsterdam, Monrovia
Mauritania Airlines International Nouakchott (with connecting flights)
Med-View Airline Accra, Lagos, Monrovia
Royal Air Moroc Casablanca (with connecting flights)

An observation of the route destinations from Freetown shows that there are no direct
connections between Freetown and Conakry, Guinea, a neighboring country and member of the Mano River Union (MRU), a sub-regional organization of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Ivory Coast. There are also no return connecting flights between Freetown and Monrovia, Liberia and similarly, no direct connecting flights between Freetown and Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

The lack of intra-connectivity amongst member states of a sub-regional organization like the MRU highlights the gaps in regional air transport services that need to be addressed. It is widely recognized that a viable and sustainable air transport industry is a powerful tool for economic development. The African Economic Commission (ECA) and African Union (AU) leaders in Abuja, 2012 endorsed a new plan of action to boost trade between the continent’s countries, towards achieving Africa’s free trade area. This plan is intended to create the continents universal customs union with free movements of people and a single market for goods and services. The proposed timeline for regional integration of these services is in 2017 – 2019.
However before this ambitious goal can be realized, all the restrictive policies, high taxes and fees and unnecessary charges in air transport services, which are prevalent in Sierra Leone,should be removed to create the right climate for investors and for the business community to thrive.

Air transport development in Sierra Leone could stimulate economic activities that would create employment opportunities for its people. It would help create a platform for competitiveness in the travel and tourism industry, intra-African and international trade and other various business activities. The development of Sierra Leone’s air transport services could be a catalyst for economic growth that provides a more cost effective means of transport within the country and in the region. If the right policies are implemented, it would help improve intra-African air connectivity that keeps airports and airlines busy and profitable.

In order for an air transport industry to be viable and sustainable in Sierra Leone, the
Government authorities, the Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority (SLCAA), the Sierra Leone Airport Authority (SLAA) and other stakeholder must have the will and focus to implement programs necessary for developing the air transport industry. The first stage would be to develop and implement a National Air Transport Policy that would provide the necessary guidelines for the development of the industry. This task would need the support of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Air Transport Association (IATA), African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC), African Airline Association (AFRAA) and a lot of goodwill from other international development agencies.

The author, Desmond Mensah Coker