Saturday, October 30, 2010

Robertsfield, Recently and More Recently

To finish off the recent posts about flying to Monrovia, there is a bit more to say about Roberts International Airport, Monrovia's and Liberia's main international gateway.

I've discussed previously how Pan American World Airways was integral in RIA's history, and how Monrovia was important in that airline's history in Africa from World War II until its withdrawal from Africa in the late 1980s, just prior to its demise in 1991.

Roberts International Airport is now operated under contract by another venerable American firm, Lockheed Martin, and has improved significantly in the years that I have been flying there. However, it remains a tiny facility, really only handful of small rooms, from the check-in hall, to the security area, to the departure lounge; the baggage claim hall, with its single, elderly luggage belt. In fact, the first time I landed in Liberia, I looked out the window and, seeing the collection of low structures at the edge of the tarmac, assumed that the terminal must be on the other side of the runway. But no, that was the terminal.

There is a much larger structure at the landside of RIA, seen in the center of the top picture. Although I have no official or definitive reporting, I've been told that this was the Pan American Terminal, and the main terminal facility for the airport during its golden age, when KLM, British Airways, British Caledonian, Swissair, SAS, and Sabena, among others, ran weekly services from Europe to or through Liberia. Monrovia, like other West African airports, was also a stop on the Europe-to-South American runs. This was the case in Liberia's worst aviation disaster, when a Brazil-bound VARIG DC-10 from Rome crashed on arrival in 1967.

The building, like the rest of the capital's infrastructure, was totally ruined during the war. Below is a picture taken by a US Air Force officer in 1997.

I'm only sorry that I thus far haven't come across any pictures from RIA's busiest period, to see just what the terminal looked like when brand-new. I'm sure that there are some out there in the Liberian community, not to mention Pan Am's archives in Miami. Today, the structure remains vacant, and shrouded in a gigantic Lonestar banner advert. However, the so-called "Old KLM Terminal" which connects to it, is looking spiffy as a VIP terminal used by the President and International celebrities (you can see it at center left of the top photo, complete with KLM blue roof trim).

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.

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.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Liberia Continues to be a Joke

To start, let me say that I decided against entering the fray of the Vice Guide to Liberia controversy earlier this year. Once other bloggers had so thoroughly and eloquently expressed their views, I didn't feel like I had much left to add. Although, as one of just a handful of young, white American males in Monrovia, I felt the whole sophomoric, hyperbolic, melodramatic drivel was especially unhelpful. I don't mean in the sense that I had to worry about being a target for some kind of backlash against me personally. I was not envisioning a scenario where I would be harmed in an Anti-American street protest, or personally attacked. But at the same it also isn't going to make my time or my work in Monrovia any easier.

In my experience, Liberia is a remarkably safe, friendly, welcoming place, with incredibly warm and approachable population who have, in both an individual and communal sense, an ability to put a foreigner at ease, and extend a gracious hospitality that I've not encountered elsewhere--and certainly remarkable for people who have faced and continue to encounter so many problems. I'm not the only observer of this point (see comments), verbalized especially in reaction to Vice's depiction of a dangerous, chaotic hellhole. Liberia has plenty of problems, especially within its still-fragile social realm, and I wouldn't walk down Broad Street at 2AM by myself or anything, but to depict the city as some kind of danger zone is utterly false.

Aside from however annoying and disappointing one finds the lazy sensationalism and gross ignorance of the Vice Guide, it is dangerous to the people of Monrovia, and not the other way around. Once again I am repeating what others have better articulated (see comments), but what we are talking about is Liberia's reputation, how it is perceived by the American public. The Vice Guide's misrepresentations make Monrovia and Liberia seem even worse than they really are, and are therefore doing harm (by the way, Vice eventually apologized). Unfortunately, the Vice Guide is only the most severe and extensive of Liberia's recent appearances in popular video, in which Liberia doesn't get the best profiling.

Earlier this summer, I learned that an episode of a show I had not previously heard of: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, was going to Liberia. I put this up on Facebook and was excited to watch it, and have Liberia gain some exposure, even if it was on one of those American-never-heard-of-this-place-before type of show.

At the end of of the half hour show, having been served palm butter and trying to surf in Robertsport, the schleppy, middle-aged New Yorker concludes:

"Liberia was tough for me, not so much physically as trying to wrap my mind around the place. The past is still too close and the good, I fear, too weak to overcome the bad just yet. This is a place that has endured the worst, that deserves better, much better. I'd like to sum up with hopeful words; a look forward to a brighter future...but I don't believe it."

A lot of people I know were really bothered by that. Of course, what he said was his opinion, and its his show. And I am sure he is not alone in assessing Liberia and feeling that its hopeless. But some of my friends felt that, in a public forum, he could have said something hopeful and encouraging, even if he didn't feel it personally. He might have felt a responsibility, if his sentiments were genuine, to be more positive, and improve Liberia's public profile.

As difficult as it is to admit, I will readily agree that Liberia is a tough place, with challenges so huge that sometimes its overwhelming. I get really frustrated in Monrovia, and I can be very critical and negative at times, and even feel hopeless. But then I go off to spend a lot more time and effort encouraging people to get excited about Liberia, to invest there, to believe in its future. Its therefore annoying when a celebrity chef from Manhattan drops in for a few days with a production crew, and informs his followers that Liberia is hopeless.

My third example is from the Daily Show, where Ellen has appeared previously. In an otherwise ingenious (and surprisingly enlightened, considering the judicial ruling at the end of the segment) report by Wyatt Cenac about Staten Island's lack of Supreme Court Justices, Liberia unexpectedly comes up.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Staten Island Supreme Court Justice
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

At the beginning of the segment, a Staten Island Assemblyman, when asked by Wyatt to list some of the good things on Staten Island, almost immediately mentions the Liberian Community as one of the borough's main assets. I was momentarily optimistic, but I could already see that the Assemblyman had completely served up a softball for the comedian to swat back. Just as I thought, Wyatt, whose job is specifically to look for any joke he can crack, took the opening provided by the Assemblyman, and offered up another laugh at Liberia's expense:

Assemblyman Matthew Titone: We happen to have a lot great things going on here.

Wyatt Cenac: Talk to me about some of those great things.

Assemblyman: [pause, audience laughter] Staten Island is immensely diverse..we also have

THE largest Liberian population outside of Liberia.

Wyatt: No offense, but its Liberia.

Assemblyman: Well, clearly people coming from a civil-war torn country prefer to be on Staten Island then Liberia [audience laughter].

Wyatt: Its kinda like saying, 'Oh, do you want to get punched in the face, or punched in the balls?' [audience laughter]

Please read Palaver Hut's post, as I largely share the view expressed there. But beyond those comments, what I am talking about is the specific damage that can be done when Liberia is mentioned in American popular culture, in a negative connotation. Personally, professionally, and emotionally, it bothers me and worries me that Liberia continues be portrayed in this light, and used as a punchline. For large audiences of young people, such as the Daily Show, this might be one of the only contexts in which they hear about Liberia at all, and the country was served up for a laugh.

Do these personalities, entertainers, and programmers have a responsibility to use their platform to help Liberia? What about the Daily Show, with its flirtations with serious journalism, such as inviting President Sirleaf, only to equate the place with a kick in the groin a year and a half later? These wisecracks are more than unhelpful-- they are, I feel, actually harmful.

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