Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Flying to Monrovia -- Its Getting Easier

The ribbon-cutting for Delta at Robertsfield. September, 2010.

I didn't post any celebratory entry on Delta's inaugural flight to Monrovia last month, even after viewing my friend's somewhat surreal picture of a sleek US-registered B767 on the rainy tarmac at Roberts International. At the time, I thought I might be on one of the first flights, and so was just waiting to give a first hand account...and maybe I was feeling a bit left out, as I am not in Monrovia at the moment and couldn't take part in the festivities.

There has been some vocal griping about the pricing and routing of the new service, especially within the Liberian diaspora. Its true that its not very exciting in that it is essentially just another connection to Accra, and only once-a-week. Its certainly not the return to the glory days of wheels-up-at RIA, touch-the-ground-at-JFK connection, which was normal in the golden era of Pan Am's African network.

I could go on at length about Roberts Airport and its history. Not only do I find myself there with some frequency, but I wrote most of the text for the Wikipedia entry, and I even was scolded to pare back my text, as it was deemed to be "unencyclodepic" -- which is a word without a real definition, although don't even begin to argue that with anyone who posts on WIkipedia. Their loss-- instead, I'll provide some of what I know here.

The press coverage of Delta's first landing created a only-in-2010 experience of having an article in quote a local newspaper report, quoting a Deputy Information Minister, regurgitating, nearly verbatim, a central passage of the Wikipedia article. Therefore, I had the bizarre experience of reading my own words back to myself via the internet.

I really believe that Delta should be commended for surviving the multiple twists and turns that is rather typical of getting an investment underway in many parts of Africa. I think they showed remarkable determination to serve Monrovia, especially for a corporation. I am not alone in seeing this as one of the most visible examples of recent progress for Liberia. Its a giant leap forward, and Delta chose Monrovia over Abidjan, and before deciding what to do about serving Nairobi or starting flights to Luanda. But Delta had lifted expectations by announcing at various times that the new service would more directly link Monrovia with New York, or at least, Atlanta.

A January 2009 route map of Delta Air Lines, showing the original plan to connect ROB with JFK via SAL

Therefore, Brussels Airlines continues to provide the only plane that one can board at Robertsfield and land on another continent-- its been that way for at least a decade. Monrovia's flying public are not in love with Brussels either-- some of my Liberian friends have questioned the reasons (security? tropical diseases? racism?!) for the separate T-gate area at Zaventem/National Airport for flights to Africa.

The Brussels Airlines hub at Zaventem has a special gate area for its African flights.

I've also heard tales of cancelled flights leaving people stuck in an African city for half a week as another airbus is flown from Belgium. I myself have had only rather positive experiences on SN. Again, the airline deserves a bit of credit for sticking with Liberia, although I am not naive enough to think its because of anything other than the high airfares (Once, at the Brussels Airlines office in the Episcopal Church Plaza, I was told it was $1347 to fly to Brussels, and $1430 to fly to New York. During holiday periods, I've been quoted over $2K to get back to the US).

At about the same time, I was around the corner at the Kenya Airways office on Broad Street, inside of what is referred to as "The KLM Building" -- recognizable as having a large "G.S.A.- KLM" sign hanging over the sidewalk, and featuring two interlocking full-time ticket offices inside, one for Kenya, one for KLM. As far as I could tell, the KLM office mostly sells tickets for connecting to Amsterdam via Accra on Kenya Airways, its alliance partner.

The KLM Building on Broad Street. "G.S.A. - KLM" sign is visible at rear left, partially obscured by the flag of
the Honorary Spanish Consulate-
- the GSA is also the Spanish Consul.

At the time I was purchasing such a ticket, I asked about KLM coming back, as it used to serve Robertsfield for years. The ticket agent told me a team from KLM had just been visiting the office that week, assessing whether to re-start service. Then I came across, via the Wall Street Journal, an announcement from Air France/KLM that they plan to serve Monrovia by next summer--no word yet on whether this will be a prestigious non-stop, or a routing via another African city. There'll likely be howls of protest if its just another link to Accra.

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