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‘Moshoeshoe Airport a ticking time-bomb’

Pascalinah Kabi

MOSHOESHOE I International Airport is a time-ticking bomb with disaster waiting to happen if the authorities do not take urgent action to resolve safety concerns which have seen the facility being awarded a 21, 81 percent safety rating by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Lesotho achieved low scores on security and safety measures at the airport.

The rating could affect the country’s economic turnaround strategies which are anchored on among other things, a vibrant tourism sector which feeds off tourist arrivals through the Moshoeshoe 1 which is the only international airport in Lesotho.

This was revealed by the Department of Civil Aviation Director, Moatsoaole Lesupi, who told a recent two-day stakeholder meeting that the poor scores reflected badly on the airport.

Mr Lesupi said “Lesotho was initially audited in 2004 and again in 2007 and failed both audits”.

“The ICAO monitors the status of each member state and the results of monitoring still reflect that Lesotho has unpleasant safety record of 21, 81 percent,” Mr Lesupi said, adding that the poor rating meant the airlines flying to and from Lesotho “did so at their own risk and therefore Moshoeshoe I was not a desired destination for the international market”.

The meeting brought together various stakeholders to provide their input into the ongoing feasibility study which is expected to culminate in the upgrading of the airport.

Recent work at the airport has focused on the refurbishment of the VIP and VVIP lounges. This was completed in July this year ahead of the visit of high-profile delegates for the cancer conference which Lesotho hosted that same month.

However, the planned refurbishment, which is expected to cost M10 billion, will be done in different phases, beginning with the extension of the runway and upgrading the security infrastructure.

Mr Lesupi however, said the refurbishment of the airport to meet international standards promised to open up economic opportunities through partnerships and increased uptake of the facility by international airlines including the Emirates.

“The ICAO sent a technical team to the (Lesotho) Department of Civil Aviation from 19 to 21 November this year. The team was pleased with the efforts made by the department to review the legislation (governing the airport and air travel) and urged the department to send the reviewed legislation to ICAO once it has been approved by the government,” Mr Lesupi said.

He said the United Arab Emirates had expressed an interest in using the airport as a regional hub.

“One can only imagine the benefits that will accrue out of multiple airlines flying in and out of Lesotho and ferrying United Arab Emirates passengers. Please note that the governments of Lesotho and the United Arab Emirates signed a bilateral air services agreement in September 2018.

“The cabinet authorised the signing of the agreement through the Foreign Affairs Minister (Lesego Makgothi) with Qatar, Arab Emirates and Turkey. Kuwait has also expressed an interest to sign the agreement with Lesotho.

“The United Arab Emirates proposed to utilise Moshoeshoe I International Airport as a regional hub and this will attract local and foreign direct investments. Other international airlines will soon follow, resulting in an increase in the volume of passengers and cargo movements.”

On his part, the principal secretary in the Ministry of Public Works, Mothabathe Hlalele, said the upgrading of the Moshoeshoe I International Airport was “probably the next big thing after the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP)”.

“This is one of the projects that is going to turn around our economy if we handle it with care,” Mr Hlalele said, adding that the government had already secured an initial funding of US$15 million (M170 million) from Kuwait.

“Lesotho needs to have an airport that can compete with the likes of O R Tambo International Airport (in South Africa). Lesotho has an added advantage over the already congested O R Tambo International Airport which cannot be expanded.

“OR Tambo Airport (authorities) have admitted that the airport cannot be expanded and they need the relief (that can be provided by airports in) the neighbouring countries. I had a meeting with them late last year where they said they were willing to sign an agreement with us to enable some of the airbuses (which fly to South Africa) to have direct access to Moshoeshoe I International Airport because their airport can no longer be expanded,” Mr Hlalele said.

He said Lesotho could also benefit from the fact that OR Tambo charged high rentals to international airlines who used their facilities.

He said Lesotho would offer lower rental fees to airlines like the Emirates which had already expressed their interest for parking space and partnering with the government in terms of the ownership of the Moshoeshoe I airport.

“To prove that this time around the government is very serious about this issue, it has set up a cabinet sub-committee headed by the Chief Thesele Maseribane. The committee, made up of ministers of public works, finance, planning and others, is tasked with overseeing the implementation of upgrading of Moshoeshoe I. This shows how serious the government is about this project because it is the next big thing after LHWP. The budget for this project is M10 billion,” Mr Hlalele said.

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