Chileka International Airport; the Past, the Present, the Future
Our special report looks at the enabler number six of the Malawi 2063 Vision which strives for a globally competitive economic infrastructure that will promote domestics economic activities and spur foreign direct investment for wealth creation.
The enabler, among others, inspires the country to have an aviation sector that is internationally competitive and expanded to attract more competition from global players.
In this report, Happy Njalam’mano of Zodiak Online flies to Chileka International Airport in Blantyre, one of the country’s old air entries, where he finds that the facility is moving backwards rather than forward in terms of development.
Flying into Lilongwe or Blantyre can never be the same as flying into Johannesburg. The experiences are annoyingly too far apart.
Of course, international airports are gates into any nation.
For people visiting a country, airports are the face of any nation.
They give a first impression of a country and its’ people.
Flying into Chileka International Airport, for example, what you notice first is a fast approaching crop field. Then you are increasingly able to identify maize crop, cassava and groundnuts, huts and footpaths.
Then a run way appears. The plane screeches into potholes. Then later taxi to a stop. Welcome to our commercial city of Blantyre.
On January 3, last year luggage for passengers got soaked at Chileka International Airport because airport roof was leaking.
This is the facility that welcomes into Malawi; presidents, cabinet ministers, diplomats, investors, tourists and high-profile figures.
On Friday August 19th last year, this woman we shall call Mary is travelling to Blantyre from Lilongwe’s Kamuzu International Airport.
She has business to take care of in Blantyre on the Saturday that follows. Flying is convenient considering her schedule on Saturday.
Although her flight delayed by two hours, Mary was still hopeful she would still make it to Blantyre that night for Saturday business.
But it was not to be.
Just when she expected to hear intercom hostess instructions for take-off for the 30-minute inter-city flight, it was to the contrary.
“We were told that we could not land because the runway had no electricity. So, we stayed in the air for about 40 minutes as we were told that authorities were trying to rectify the problem, but to no avail.
“After about forty minutes, we just flew back to Lilongwe and told that we will have our flight on Saturday morning. It was embarrassing because all my programmes were affected. In fact, I just went to Blantyre for other things but not what I planned to do,” she said.
Annoyed travelers disembarked to start all over again following day. This is not the first hiccup at Chileka International Airport. We cataloged a number of incidents for a clearly picture of things.
When FIFA President Gianni Infantino cancelled his visit to Malawi on November 27th, 2019, the local FA issued a statement saying this was due to rehabilitation works on the main run way at the airport.
The jet carrying the FIFA official and his entourage could not land.
Almost a year later on December 16th 2020, Zodiak witnessed airport officials using umbrellas to shield disembarking passengers from rains. The airport did not have an operational airport shutter.
The same occurred February 28th last year. The Malawi National Football Team was returning from the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations.
On 3 January, 2022 passengers’ luggage got soaked in the rain water because the airport roof was leaking.
Tony Chimpukuso worked with Air Malawi from 1975 to the 90s. Here he gives an account of the situation back then.
“You could leave Chileka airport in the morning and arrive in London in the evening without stopping anywhere. Maybe you could stop at Malta for refueling but all that has gone down to the dogs,” he said.
While acting as the gate way for Malawi to the world, international airports, especially busy ones, are a source of forex for the country.
Professor Charles Chamthunya, Chancellor of Blantyre International University, says well organized airports could be instrumental in national development through forex from airlines that utilize them.
His sentiments are amplified by Dr. Betchani Tchereni, an economic expert at the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences.
“It is through airports that we get tourists and traders coming to Malawi and where a lot of economic activities happen. You cannot have an airport with a very poor structure. You need to be in the best infrastructure. If it is in a very poor infrastructure, you cannot attract some of the tourists to Malawi. Image is everything and you need to uplift the airports to make them appealing to the people out there,” he said.
A lecturer on Aviation Management and Tourism at Mzuzu University says Malawi has a long way do go in transforming airports. His name is Sydney Banda.
“We also have to invest in technology and design of the airport. We just have to make a deliberate policy to make sure that we are investing in our airports. Remember, some years back we used to have a direct flight from Malawi to the overseas,” he said.
On January 18th last year, Transport minister Jacob Hara visited the airport pledging that government would tackle challenges facing the airport such as the terminal project and land encroachment.
One year later, he is still Transport minister. What has transpired in between?
“What we are trying to do now is to make sure that we have the airports certified by international bodies that they are safe airports that everyone is free to fly. That is what we are working on to make sure that they are acceptable and are meeting the international standards,” he said.
The National Planning Commission says economic infrastructure is one key enabler of the Malawi2063. It inspires the country to have an aviation sector that is internationally competitive and expanded.
The enabler aims to attract more competition from global players.
But unless Malawi airports undergo total overhaul, this dream could as well remain that; a dream. Renovation works of the terminals at Chileka have now delayed for over ten years due to lack of funding.
In fact, travel consultant Harry Kandani believes that in their present state, Malawi airports are a burden on the economy and taxpayers
“We are going backwards. If you go to Ndola, it is not an international airport like Kenneth Kaunda but is more than the Kamuzu International Airport here in Malawi. We are going backwards and the airports are not in good shape. So, we are losing a lot because would prefer to go to Zambia and not Malawi and yet we have all the products but we do not know how to use them,” said Kandani.
Now we have people encroaching upon airport land, scrambling for the undeveloped airport land. Let us reserve that embarrassing discussion for another day. There is a plane landing with visitors.