Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Flying to Monrovia - its Getting Easier, Part 2

Monrovia is unique among African cities, in that it has not one but two international airports (at least as far as I know). That it makes unique on the continent. Johannesburg, Nairobi, Cairo, Lagos--not one of them has more than a single commercial airport, much less two with full customs facilities. Its somewhat incredible that war-weary, infrastructure-poor Monrovia is up there with the likes of London, Paris, and Tokyo with a second international airport.

While Roberts International is at least 45 minutes from Central Monrovia, the city's second airport, called James Spriggs-Payne Airfield, is located right in the heart of the city, in Sinkor. Its single paved runway is the de facto boundary between the "Avenues" and "Old Road" sections of Sinkor.

The runway of Spriggs-Payne separates Sinkor-Airfield and the Old Road area. The Old Road crosses the photo horizontally from west to east; the old connection to Tubman Boulevard can be seen; this street is now called Airfield Short Cut. The neighborhood behind the terminal is called "Airfield" as a principal entertainment and residential area of the city.
Image courtesy of Google Earth.

In fact, the runway used to be crossed by the Old Road, presumably with ground traffic being halted for take-offs and landings, but this intersection was later blocked and the end of the Old Road became known as Airfield Shortcut. Today, the "Airfield" section of Sinkor is a lively entertainment district, home to several popular restaurants (like Ro-zi's and P.A.'s), and nightclubs (most notably déjà Vu). I've written about Spriggs-Payne before, in the context of the airports authority trying to reclaim their rights to the open fields and neighborhoods at the end of the runway).

Although I authored the majority of the Wikipedia entries for both Spriggs-Payne and Robertsfield (and even provided the picture for Spriggs-Payne), I really don't know too much more about the Airfield's history. It seems the spot started as a grass-strip airfield in the days before Robertsfield was built, and that it has been the hub for Liberia's occasional domestic air services.

Although the runway is longer and made of concrete, the airport is still home to the only domestic flight in Liberia, which connects Spriggs-Payne (code: MLW) to Harper, a weekly flight operated by a Cameroonian-based airline, Elysian Airlines (yes, I wrote that wikipedia article, too).

Elysian's own website is not updated very often, so its difficult to provide the most accurate current information, but as of earlier this year, Elysian was flying from MLW to Conakry, Banjul, and Freetown, about once a week. The Harper run usually leaves Monrovia on Friday and comes back on Monday, so its possible to go for a long weekend, in theory. I've also heard that the flight might stop in Greenville, capital of Sinoe County, if there is any passenger demand.

I've heard some mixed reviews of Elysian--actually the only complaint that I can pass along is that, given the airline's small fleet, if there is a mechanical issue, you can find yourself staying in Harper for a week and three days, rather than just a week.

Aside from that, I think its pretty incredible that this airport is up and running, with a Cameroonian company running a regional hub. Its interesting to contrast Elysian's services with those from Robertsfield, which currently only only one west-bound flight, the Royal Air Maroc connection to Banjul and onward to Casablanca. Beyond that, the only westward services to neighboring Mano Region countries are Elysian's flights to Freetown and Conakry to Spriggs-Payne.

Like many things in Monrovia, UNOPS is to thank for Spriggs-Payne condition. I don't have hard facts, but the UN made a sizeable effort to upgrade the effort post-2003 for its own purposes, which allowed for public and commercial utilization. Still, its more likely to see a UN Helicopter hovering over Sinkor than it is one of Elysian's turboprops.

There are also UN Flights, which are reportedly more reliable, but you have to been on some special list. Its sort of the most-exclusive club in Monrovia, like a speakeasy or something. And its not that cheap, either. I can't even tell you where they go right now, but I am pretty sure they still connect Monrovia with Freetown and Harper, and perhaps Accra and Abidjan.

When Ethiopian Airlines announced its new service to Monrovia from Addis Ababa via Accra, it included an onward destination of Conakry. This never took place, likely because of the troubles in Conakry over the last year. Delta was supposed to link Monrovia to the US via Cape Verde or Dakar, but that ended up changing. Bellview [dead link intended] used to serve Freetown from ROB, and Slok Air used to fly from there to Banjul, but both folded.

A sign above the locked ticket office at Robertsfield for SLOK Air International, A Gambian air company that stopped flying in 2008. Image ©2008 Moved2monrovia

Even Brussels Airlines more recently would triangulate their BRU-ROB runs with a stop at Abidjan's rather stately Port Bouet Airport. However, when SN started their new flight schedule this summer, which added Accra as a destination, Monrovia and Abidjan were decoupled. At the moment, there are no commercial flights between the capitals of these two neighboring countries. It continues to be easier to get to an English-speaking place, even if you can't get to a next-door neighbor unless you flight to Europe first.


Scarlett Lion said...

Elysian stopped flying a couple of months ago, unfortunately... They stopped circa March, and as of late September were still not up in the air.

Monrovian said...

Thanks Glenna. This is indeed unfortunate, for several reasons:

(1) How embarrassing for ME to have posted outdated information
(2) How sad that another West African regional carrier/enterprise has gone bust.
(3) Crap. I never used that free ticket to anywhere they fly that I got at the beginning of the year.

Hope they come back to the skies, or that another airline fills the void at Spriggs Payne!


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