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Angola: Luanda’s costly new airport raises questions

By Honoré Banda
Posted on Tuesday, 18 November 2014 12:52

Earlier this year, Angola’s transport minister Augusto da Silva Tomás told a meeting of the Business Council for International Understanding in Chicago about ambitious plans to improve railways, roads, ports and airports.

If two large jumbo jets leave around the same time, with around 600 people in the departure hall, the airport creaks

He said that Angola was open for investments and economic cooperation with the rest of the world, “especially with the North American market”.

Construction of a new Chinese-built airport south-east of Luanda in Bengo Province is key to Angola’s development programme, with the airport mooted as a regional hub that could rival Johannesburg.

National Angolan carrier TAAG and Emirates signed a 10-year management deal in September, which will see Emirates take over management of the airline and appoint a new CEO, as part of an effort to boost services across the continent.

“We have today in construction, around 40km from the capital Luanda, a big and modern international airport which will be one of the biggest in Africa.

“It has the capacity to receive aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and will be able to receive around 15 million passengers annually, with a completion date scheduled for mid-2017,” said Tomás.

With the Aeroporto Internacional Quatro de Fevereiro in Luanda bursting at the seams despite renovation and expansion, there is a clear need for more capacity.

If two large jumbo jets leave around the same time, with around 600 people in the departure hall, the airport creaks.

Customs officials also struggle to handle so many passengers. Slots at the airport remain very tight.

It seems unlikely that the new airport will open any time soon. An Angolan engineer who visited the well-concealed site last year says construction had stopped and that the opening date will not be met.

“I don’t think 2017 is remotely realistic. I think the future of this airport really depends on the construction of access infrastructure,” he said on condition of anonymity.

A highway and express rail link are two possible options to connect the airport to the capital.

The cost of the new airport is estimated by several sources at around $3bn.

A Chinese credit line is financing the project, though details of this are scarce.

Land deals

Not everyone is a fan of the project. Some analysts that a new airpost should not have been a priority, with expansion of the existing airport still possible.

Others say that the airport is another example of a badly thought-out project that will help a small elite in the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) to enrich itself.

Locals say that MPLA cadres and allies of President José Eduardo dos Santos have bought the land around the airport.

“This is classic stuff, and it happens all over the world,” explained a businessman who wished to remain nameless.

“You choose a new airport site, buy all the land around it and when the airport opens people are forced to rent it off you. It is a great money spinner, and the Angolans are great at this kind of thing,” the source said.

Despite continued claims of corruption, large-scale investments made since the end of the civil war in the rehabilitation and expansion of roads, railways, ports and airports are having a positive impact on private-sector productivity.

The newly refurbished airport in Luena opened for operations in August and the one in Uíge reopened in September.

Infrastructure is also a buzzword in government circles.

The ruling elite is seeking to keep a lid on discontent among the country’s largely poor population of 20 million.

With elections in 2017, there is much more at stake than access to a half-built new airport for the ruling MPLA. ●

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