‘Major security concerns at Moshoeshoe Airport’
THE Director of Civil Aviation, Motsoaole Lesupi, has reiterated long-standing concerns about the unsuitability of Moshoeshoe I International Airport as a hub for international travel.
Addressing a weekend stakeholders’ workshop at the airport, Mr Lesupi dropped a bombshell, saying in addition to the much-publicised dilapidation of the airport’s facilities, there were “major security concerns but unfortunately I cannot disclose them at this point”.
He said such concerns had frustrated their efforts to turn the airport into an international hub utilised by leading carriers like Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines and Emirates Airline of the United Arab Emirates.
He said these challenges could be addressed by turning the aviation department into an autonomous body fully capable of running the airport with a great degree of independence from central government.
“Lesotho has the potential to be the regional hub. We have negotiated with many foreign airlines such as Qatar, Turkey and Emirates to land in Lesotho but due to the fact that we are not an autonomous authority, our efforts have not yielded the desired results.
“It pained me so much when Qatar opted to use Botswana instead of Lesotho because our airport does not meet international standards. The (Civil Aviation) department should be made an autonomous authority for it to operate commercially and for the benefit of Basotho,” Mr Lesupi said.
The workshop comes against the background of threats by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to close the country’s only international airport if it is not refurbished.
ICAO first issued the threats to close down the airport in December 2020. It said several years of neglect had left the airport facilities in a state of disrepair.
Mr Lesupi is on record saying that the government is in a race against time to refurbish the “collapsing” airport, failing which it would be closed or downgraded to a domestic airport catering only for local flights.
In June 2021 the transport ministry awarded controversial South African businessman Thulani Majola’s LTE Consulting a M38 million contract to oversee the refurbishment of Lesotho’s dilapidated airport.
But already on 18 March 2021, a provisional liquidation application had been launched by a creditor of LTE Consulting in the Johannesburg High Court. The application was granted on 9 June 2021, a day before unsuccessful bidders were informed the contract had been awarded to LTE Consulting.
South Africa’s famed AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism published a story about Mr Majola’s alleged use of his political connections in Lesotho to land the multi-million maloti tender.
The article also stated that the airport tender was awarded to LTE four months after its liquidation.
The liquidation, the article stated, was as a result of LTE being accused of failing to honour a M23 million debt to its South African sub-contractor, Kontinental Engineering Consulting, for a bus station construction project for the City of Ekurhuleni in 2020.
LTE had initially entered into talks regarding a settlement with Kontinental after the latter had filed a liquidation application in the Johannesburg High Court.
However, the parties failed to reach an agreement and Kontinental went back to court, arguing that LTE had paid M14 million but still owed M8, 9 million. This led to the eventual liquidation of LTE, according to AmaBhungane.
A group of local construction and mining companies have since filed a High Court application to overturn the tender award to LTE.
Calling itself the Civil Mining and Building Constructors, the group was joined in its application by a local consultancy, PM Aviation Consultancy. PM Aviation was one of the four companies which lost the airport tender to LTE Consulting in June 2021. The matter is pending.
Should the work not be finished on time for an inspection on a date to be determined by the ICAO, 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.
Besides the airport woes, Lesotho has not had a national airline since 1997. South Africa’s Airlink stepped in to fill the void and has since then been offering flights from Moshoeshoe I Airport to OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg.
Local business magnate, Sam Matekane, launched his own airline, Maluti Sky in 2009. The company competed with SA Airlink from March 2016 until it stopped operating its flights to Johannesburg in 2017 due to a depressed business environment.
Another local company, Mohahlaula Airlines, then launched domestic flights from Maseru to Mokhotlong, Semonkong and Qacha’s Nek in 2020.
Addressing the stakeholders’ meeting, Mr Lesupi said his department was working on a turn-around strategy to ensure that local airlines like Maluti Sky and Mohahlaula Airlines, take charge of both domestic and international flights.
“We became concerned when Maluti Sky stopped operating because it represented us as a country. That made us go back to the drawing board to revise our policy to see how we can support airline operators to boost the economy through job creation.
“We would like to see local airlines grow and that can only be achieved through our support. It is not right that foreign operators have taken over our market when we have local operators. We are working on plans to have Maluti Sky and Mohahlaula Airlines take the lead in both domestic and international flights,” Mr Lesupi said, adding their plans would only be achieved if they became an autonomous body.
“We are still far behind compared to other countries because ours is just an aviation department while other countries have civil aviation authorities. The government should not be directly in control of aviation matters because that restricts the industry’s growth.
“This airport (Moshoeshoe I International Airport) would not be in this state if we had an authority. We can renovate this airport to world-class standards but that would not be possible if we remain a department with the ministry.
“I remember one time when we were telling the government that M80 million was required to refurbish the runway in order to accommodate big aeroplanes. But the authorities couldn’t understand how just a kilometre of tarred surface could cost that much. Aviation is expensive hence it needs to be commercialised,” Mr Lesupi said.