By Mohamed T Massaquoi
The Dutch airline – KLM – has resumed flights to Freetown after a break of 20 years.
Its maiden flight landed at the Freetown International Airport at Lungi at 8:00 PM on Sunday 26 March with 110 passengers on board, among them the KLM West Africa Director, Philippe Barbieri.
KLM, which is part of the Air France-KLM Group, stopped flying to Sierra Leone on 26 December 1996 as a result of the civil war which lasted between 1991 and 2002. Negotiations to have it return lasted for six months, according to the airport management, who hailed the resumption of flights as a boost to its effort to open up the country to the world.
“The KLM left this country just deep into the rebel war, and its coming back means not only that KLM has restored its confidence in the country, [but] also in the activities of the airport,” said Idriss Nabie Fofana, General Manager of the Sierra Leone Airports Authority (SLAA).
He said the resumption of flights to the country by KLM preceded huge investment by the Airports Authority, notably on operation efficiencies and security.
Fofana said that as part of the negotiations, auditors were sent to review its systems, equipment and qualification – all geared towards ensuring that the airport complied with international standards of civil aviation.
From technical equipment (communications), to navigational kits and the terminal building, everything was overhauled at the airport, he went on. They also had to train personnel in handling these services.
Transport and Aviation Minister, Leonard Balogun Koroma was among dignitaries at the airport to receive the maiden KLM flight which flew nonstop from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Freetown.
The flight then returned via Monrovia, Liberia, with 200 passengers.
Koroma said the return of KLM demonstrated the confidence the international business community placed on the country and the economy.
He said the carrier would be of better service to customers in terms of pricing because of the expected competition it would induce.
KLM becomes the third major European Airline to fly to Sierra Leone, after Air France and Brussels Airlines. It will fly to Freetown from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam three times a week.
“The inauguration of the Amsterdam route will reduce flying times each way and give great connection opportunities to destinations worldwide via hub of Amsterdam Schiphol” reads a statement from the Sierra Leone Airport Authority. It says the route will “also enhance the connection with Liberian Robert International Airport”.
The local aviation industry is still recovering from the effect of the 2014 Ebola epidemic which forced the termination of operations by most airlines save for Royal Air Maroc and Brussels Airlines.
Before Ebola nine airlines flew into Freetown which is down to seven with British Airways (BA) the biggest yet to return.
The airport authorities say negotiations are still on going to have more airlines return or resume. Among them is Air Mauritania which is expected to close the gap linking Freetown to Banjul in The Gambia and Dakar in Senegal.
But there are concerns about the sustainability of the airlines, especially big ones like KLM. When BA ceased flying to the country in 2014 just few months after it had started, it was attributed to the Ebola epidemic at the time. But it soon emerged that it had to do with operational costs and viability of the route.
But KLM’s West Africa Director, Barbieri assured the carrier was here to stay.
He said that not only was KLM back in Sierra Leone, but that the Air France-KLM Group was back in Africa.
He said they were investing a lot with six destinations to the continent, and that Sierra Leoneans would have six opportunities to go to Europe and come back in a week.
Copyright © Politico 2017