Tuesday, September 1, 2015

On Airports and Expansion Projects

During the briefing we got before we left for the Mandela Washington fellowship, we were told we would return and get horribly frustrated with “how things work in our home countries”. I thought they were bluffing. I’d traveled before, I was yet to meet something that would push me over the edge. Well, since I’ve been back, I’m not only frustrated. I’m getting angry. I’m becoming an angry young Ugandan woman. There is nothing like the realization that you’ve been fed bullshit for so long that you had even stopped recognizing it as bullshit. You had started to happily eat, not minding the smell or taste.

 A few evenings back, I watched a news bulletin with increasing alarm as the president launched the expansion project for the Entebbe International Airport. This is an event that should be filling me with joy but alas it did not. Firstly, said project is going to be handled by a Chinese firm called China Communications Construction Company Ltd. A simple Google search led me to find that said firm has been blacklisted by the world bank  and is ineligible to engage in any road and bridge projects financed by the World Bank Group until January 12, 2017 because of corruption. (Read more here) I have no qualms with the great people of China but have we not learnt enough already. What is wrong with us? China and Uganda signed a concessional loan agreement of 200 million dollars to fund this particular expansion project. *weeps*

What was most mind boggling though was the President’s speech. He asked the Chinese to use materials and labour from here? Huh! I had to rewatch that bit online. Ask for who, do you not run the country?! Isn’t this something he should have demanded be added to the terms of the contracts he signed before he signed. Shouldn’t this ask have been an addendum of sorts to the contract. Legal people help me out here.  Then he went on to say how he was happy that we would now have a world standard airport to enjoy. What! Airport to enjoy. You mean to tell me you are spending $200m that my grandchildren will suffer to pay back on God who knows terms just so they can enjoy an airport. No sir, no more. I want figures. I don’t want half assed speeches anymore, I want to know how much that airport earns now and how much more it will earn once said upgrade is done. I want to know how this airport intends to pay back that loan.What is the strategy for this airport? Who is leading it?
More internet research led me to this ;http://www.caa.co.ug/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=103&Itemid=78. I need someone to make sense of this to my economially lay brain. Why is there profit yet more than half of the revenue looks like it comes from the government? Also, where are the figures for 2013, 2014 and the years before 2011? Was the authority not in operation then?

Just as all these painful thoughts were busy ravaging my mind. I remembered that I spent a day at what is considered the world busiest airport recently, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. 

Impressive, no?!  Image from internationalairportsguide.com
Not travelling as you might think but for an experiential learning session. Coincidentally, this airport just had an upgrade as well. The addition of an international terminal.This upgrade has raised the profile of the city of Atlanta which is just 11 minutes away from the airport to an international destination for business and tourism.  Something the city’s mayor, Kasim Reed is very proud of and made mention of  often when he met the YALI fellows hosted in Atlanta. Oh and he did mention a concession he insisted on having; that 20% of the work goes to minority owned businesses i.e black/women owned businesses. Dear Mr. President, hint hint.

The Hartsfield-Jackson Airport staff take their business very VERY seriously and this was expressed through the way the sessions were conducted and the people that they had speak to us. Please note that we had the profiles (what they do and their professional backgrounds) of each person speaking to us beforehand. This was professionalism on another level.  We were welcomed by the director of international business and then sessions from; the Aviation Senior Deputy General Manager, the Chairman,Fulton County Board of Commissioners, Dean of the Georgia Consular Corps, the Director of Financial Planning and Analysis, the Art Program Managers (Yes, the airport has an art program, currently focusing of African Art), the Director of Strategic Planning and the General Manager.

Three sessions stood out for me, firstly the art program session. The art program’s unique offering is help humanize the airport’s vast scale by providing travelers with museum quality artifacts to engage them between flights and to enliven the airport’s public spaces with permanent art. The current art installation features works of contemporary stone sculpture from Zimbabwe. Walking through the hallway with this gigantic sculpture was truly a beautiful experience. Here was Africa, being celebrated in a big way, a million miles away. The expressions on the faces of the Zimbabwean fellows were a sight to behold as they saw names of artist that are revered back home. We were told that the artists were paid between $20,000 and $50,000 for each piece. A pittance for a professional sculptor in the west but a win for these artists. We were proud but tremendously sad that this was not an airport back home in Africa doing this.

Such beauty. Heh!
Second prominent session was the Director of Strategic Planning. Hearing the ambitious , far sighted plans he has for the airport was nothing short of amazing. He is leading a master planning process that will set the stage for future projects by identifying areas for improvement and growth and determining how best to adapt existing facilities or plan new ones to meet the demands of travelers and to provide them with cutting-edge, top-notch customer service. This master plan is meant to plot the airport’s course for the next 20 years.

The last and best session for me was from Miguel Southwell, the general manager of the airport. This man is truly passionate about his job and wants to leave behind a legacy of excellence. He managed the expansion of the airport and is now charting the course of the development of the airport for the next 20 years. His priorities include enhancing the guest experience at Hartsfield-Jackson, expanding air cargo capacity, building a robust, job-creating international air service development program and several other initiatives- all aimed at strengthening the airport’s impact on the economy and making it an even larger force in the global aviation market. This man means business. 

This airport serves 260,000 people daily on average, employs 58,000 and generates up to $33.6 billion. And yet that is still not enough. The airport runs an incentive program to further stimulate international air cargo and passenger growth. Landing fees are waived for one year for airlines starting new international routes not already served from Atlanta, promotional costs (capped at $25,000) are matched for new passenger services and aircraft parking fees are waived at the airport’s cargo areas for qualified carriers. That is not all. I could go on about the cargo facilities, the perishables complex and the foreign trade zone but I’m sure you get the picture. The airport is not just infrastructure to be used. It is a revenue generating beast.

So I have questions. Serious questions. I have been to 10 international airports so far in my brief stay on this planet and I have been dismally depressed by the experience at only one; Entebbe. Power blackouts have occurred twice whilst I was there. Imagine my confidence getting on a plane thereafter. All I was thinking was; what if in the middle of takeoff, electricity goes off and the captain can’t see the runway. (THE HORROR!). What is the purpose of this airport as per the Civil Aviation Authority? What is their strategy? What is the airport's turnover?  Who has these numbers? Where does this money go? We are a tourist destination but little of that can be gleaned from the airport? (Putting up pictures of gorillas can only do so much). This upgrade: What’s the agenda? What are the long term plans and how do they fit in with those of the economy? And finally, how do they intend to pay back that $200m using the airport itself cause I’ll be damned if that bit is not part of the plan?

Entebbe evidently has  a long long way to get to Hartfield-Jackson and I don’t purport to have any answers to how this can be done but I am livid at what looks like the haphazard planning for this upgrade and the evident aiming for mediocrity. As people these days like to say, we will never have nice things if this continues. Ever.