Privatisation of Freetown International Airport is good for the country

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 26 March 2013

New look Lungi International Airport 1Three years ago, the Sierra Leone Telegraph called for the privatisation of the management of facilities at the country’s international Airport. Crime, corruption, low staff morale and disrepair, had made the airport unwelcoming and unsafe for passengers. (Photo: Lungi Airport under refurbishment).

Although president Koroma may not be the most consistent leader with respect to making clear, workable policy decisions and acting on those decisions, his commitment to the transformation of the Airport must be acknowledged.

Will Lungi Airport become the country’s crown jewel?

The private British company granted the contract for the management and running of Lungi Airport is Westminster Aviation Security Services Ltd.

It is a subsidiary of Westminster International Ltd., an internationally focused security organisation, providing: fire, safety, security and defence solutions to governments and governmental agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) and blue chip commercial organisations worldwide.

The company offers a wealth of experience and operates worldwide through strategically located international offices, agents and partner companies in over 45 countries, including a significant presence in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the South America.

Its Group’s principal activity is the design, supply, installation, and maintenance of a wide range of security and defence solutions for the protection of people, buildings, organisations and the nation state.

Westminster offers a broad yet complementary range of services to the Commercial, Industrial, Banking, Governmental, National Infrastructure, State Security, Military, Policing, Custodial, Telecommunications, Automotive, Aviation and Marine sectors worldwide.

Sierra Leone’s international Airport is the gateway and front-door to the country, but sadly had suffered decades of neglect and mismanagement, due to incompetence, corruption, nepotism and lawlessness.

New look Lungi International Airport 2But just under ten years ago, the World Bank in partnership with the government of Sierra Leone drew up a strategic plan for the re-development of the airport. Millions of dollars were committed to refurbishing the runway, improve lighting and installing security and baggage handling facilities.

Although staff training was carried out, there was very little change witnessed with respect to the quality of management and the appalling behaviour of staff towards passengers arriving and departing from the airport.

The airport was filthy and unwelcoming. Bribery, corruption and extortion were rampant at the airport. So too was the smuggling of drugs, contrabands, small  firearms and other illegal items.

Passport checks were based on how much passengers could fork-out of their pockets to bribe menacing looking immigration officers.

New look Lungi International Airport 3With the management of the airport now in the hands of a reputable British company – Westminster, all that is about to change; but there are teething problems.

(Photo – Airport under refurbishment)

Change is proving difficult, as local staff – not used to discipline are refusing to obey company orders, whose management team include ten British expatriates.

Decades of lawlessness, lack of discipline and break down in law and order, quite common across the country are once again threatening to make the airport ungovernable, before the benefits of privatisation can be achieved.

New Look Lungi International Airport 4In order to work towards culture change at the airport, Westminster had introduced tough working practices and employment policies, which many people visiting the country would consider to be normal and acceptable behavioural practices in the workplace. (Photo: Airport under refurbishment).

But according to newspaper report (Awoko), local staff employed at the airport are angry at the disciplined approach and style of management introduced by the company.

The new rules include the banning of tips from passengers. The company has installed Closed Circuit Television cameras all over the airport to gather evidence on those caught breaking the rules and to stop pilfering, theft, bribery and corruption within the airport.

New Look Lungi International Airport 5The company has also quite rightly, introduced a ban on the use of mobile phones while on duty, to the consternation of staff not used to such discipline.

Crying out for a return to the old, bad days of irresponsible management and poor work ethics and free for all, the workers are said to be accusing the Government of selling them out to the Westminster.

While passenger safety and baggage security must be the top priority of Westminster and must not and cannot be compromised, the issue of pay and reward for a good day’s work must be looked into by the management.

The airport workers are complaining that their average salary is below One Million Leones ($231.00), while the WASS management is handling over $10,000 a month.

Behavioural change can only be achieved through fair rewards and sanctions.

Aviation Manager Andy Heron told Awoko that supervisors’ average salary is about Le1.2 Million, while security personnel elsewhere in the country are earning about Le800, 000, adding that some local staff within the management team are earning a thousand dollars a month.

New Look Lungi International Airport 6He said that the company has given the workers a 12.5% pay increase. Rice allowance, transport, and housing benefits have risen. Workers also receive other benefits including water, and food at night costing Le54,000.

Some of the angry and disgruntled workers are unhappy about the management’s demand for all staff to ensure that their personal hygiene is of the highest standard. Body odour, the company says, is a problem for passengers who are constantly complaining.

Not surprisingly, workers not wanting to give up their lucrative and corrupt practices at the airport, say that security at the airport was far better when managed by the Freetown International Airport Authority.

They say that under the old Sierra Leonean run management regime they had peace of mind; job security – without constant fear of being suspended; good working relationship with their bosses, which they say made work much easier.

What is clear is that some of the airport workers are trying to undermine the authority of the new management. They must not be allowed to make the airport ungovernable.

What is at stake is the estimated $50 million of dollars revenue that the government loses every year from tourism, as a result of a poorly run airport and other public infrastructures.

New Look Lungi International Airport 7And, when the effect of discouraging foreign direct investors from entering the country, is factored into the cost of an appalling managed airport, there is little doubt, the need to ensure that Westminster Ltd continues to develop and manage the facilities at the airport in accordance with international standards.

The government must now ensure that there is no return to the bad old days of state management of the country’s international airport, as the General Manager of the Sierra Leone Airports Authority – Mr. John Sesay calls for public-private partnership to develop and expand business and enterprise services at the airport.

Following the recent refurbishment and upgrading of the airport, which is now under the management of Westminster Ltd, Mr. Sesay is looking to local entrepreneurs and businesses to establish quality retail shops and services within the airport.

Speaking to Awoko, Mr. Sesay said there are opportunities also for the private sector to take over management of the four new airport lounge that are being constructed.

“We are creating the environment for the private sector to do business at the airport with the aim to provide quality service delivery,” said Mr. Sesay.

But he warned local businesses and entrepreneurs that they will be expected to strictly adhere to the rules and regulations of the authority in bidding for service delivery contracts at the airport.

Will the government ensure fair play in the award of those contracts?

Experience has shown that most public sector procurement contracts have been awarded to family members and friends of president Koroma and other senior ministers.

Sierra Leone’s development will continue to be stunted, as long as those in power and their surrogates allow corruption, nepotism and patronage to influence rational decision-making.

The development and transformation of the country’s only international airport – the gateway to the nation, must not be allowed by the World Bank and other stakeholders to once again sink into the morass of ineptitude and depravity.

The people of Sierra Leone are yearning for something in the country that really works, in accordance with international standards. Lungi Airport may soon become the country’s crown jewel.

Photos – courtesy of Sweet Salone