Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Flying to Liberia: Its Getting Easier. Part 3: Spring 2011 updates from Spriggs-Payne

Last fall, I gave a run-down over the few posts about the commercial air services into and out of Monrovia. It can be a bit tricky, because African airlines tend to come and go, and connecting within Africa, between countries or domestically, can involve differential calculus (not to mention a higher fare than from the United States to Europe, in many cases).

I was even tripped up last fall, as Elysian Airlines, the Cameroonian carrier that had set up a pretty solid operation at Monrovia's secondary airport, Spriggs-Payne Airfield in Sinkor, had suddenly ceased flying at some point in the middle of last year, without any formal announcement. This happens relatively often in Africa. Slok Air, a Gambian carrier, has still never admitted that it is finished, even though it has not flown since mid-2008.

The collapse of Elysian's operations left Spriggs-Payne without any scheduled commercial service. Given that Elysian's Friday service down to Harper, which normally returned on Sunday or Monday, the closure of the station also left Liberia without any scheduled domestic airline flights. Given that it can take days to traverse Liberia's roads to the distant counties such as Maryland, this was a serious setback to the country's transport infrastructure.

Although there are no reports out that any airline has relaunched service to Harper, I am happy to report that the void left by Elysian has been filled by not one but two airlines.

Note: this route map does not reflect the current ASKY flights out of Monrovia.

The first is Lomé, Togo-based ASKY Airlines, a young regional carrier that is partly backed by Ethiopian Airlines. Ethiopian itself began flying to Robertsfield from Addis Ababa via Accra in late 2009 to great fanfare, but then withdrew that service, disappointingly. Instead, smaller, newer ASKY came into Spriggs-Payne late last year. ASKY started with non-stop service to Abidjan, Accra and Banjul (last year's route map above). The service to Abidjan was helpful in particular, as Brussels Airlines had switched its pit-stop from Europe from Abidjan to Accra in mid-2010. Banjul was later dropped, and at the beginning of this year, Abidjan appears to have been substituted with Bamako, Mali--an interesting choice. Service is with small prop aircraft--current schedule is below.

Secondly, Manu River neighbor Sierra Leone got its own airline at the beginning of this year. Fly 6ix has already been designated that national carrier by President Koroma, just in time for that country's 50th years of independence, its Golden Jubilee. With a single Embraer regional jet, the young carrier operates three-times a week service from Freetown, connecting to Banjul, Conakry and Monrovia. As can be seen in the schedule below, the airline flies non-stop from Spriggs-Payne (MLW) to both Freetown (FNA) and Conakry (CKY).

A recent airfare search on the airline's website showed a roundtrip fare from Monrovia to Conakry of $672. Pretty typical. Additionally, these intrepid little carriers, although using modern aircraft, can be subject to huge delays if a maintenance issue grounds an aircraft. Fly 6ix appears to have only one plane. Passengers could be stuck for days if something doesn't go according to plan. Still, these small steps forward are definitely progress. A key to making African economies grow faster is to integrate them, and the region can definitely use better infrastructure--for all modes of transport.

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