Thursday, July 17, 2014

Building of the Month: The proposed Henry Hoff Commercial Plaza, Carey Street

Given the aviation kick I've been on this week I had been hoping to get a chance to photograph a new building out at the airport for July's Building of the Month, but that will have to wait for another time.

This set of photos has been the draft box since earlier this year, when I was walking around central Monrovia on an early Sunday morning. The city has a great number of proposed-building signboards at the moment, perhaps more than at any other time that I can recall. I post some others here as well, but this is probably the most ambitious of them all, not least given its height. It's not entirely clear what the scale is here, other than the presence of the cars at the bottom of the illustration, which looks to be a straight screen print off an aged, low-capacity version of AutoCAD.

The tower looks to be maybe three stories of parking, with maybe ten stories of offices that appear to rest on a level of thick, flaring columns which would cantilever  That would make the building within range of the tallest building in Liberia, which would be a remarkable development in and of itself, but the first time since the rise of the Ducor in 1959 that a commercial structure reached such a height.

It will be interesting to see first whether this project gets built, and then who occupies the offices: whether a UN Agency or NGO takes a chunk of space, whether a bank relocates its headquarters, or whether smaller private firms are able to absorb the square footage. Not sure what is going on at the crown of this building, but my guess would be either (a) another fancy rooftop restaurant or (b) an executive apartment.

If this building does rise, it will dramatically transform this tired, crumbling block of Carey Street, which thus far has remained a low-slung but dense block of concrete structures, and has yet to see the construction which has changed so many other parts of the city. As the signboard says, "Coming soon to the Carey !!!"

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Feasibility Study and Master Plan for Robertsfield, 1965

The recent posts have reminded me of something I found in the basement of the Library of Congress several years ago, and never got around to posting here before, but now seems relevant: A 1965 Feasibility Study for Robertsfield, commissioned by USAID and prepared by a Los Angeles firm of engineers and architects.

Frankly, in many parts it is so dry and technical as to be unreadable, but I was in love from the cover, with its Microgramma typeface looking like a prop from 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with a gorgeous, dashing R.F.I.A. logo (famously derived from Pan Am's globe emblem, as the US carrier had the contract to manage the airport apparently from its earliest days as a commercial facility).

The best parts are really all the graphics. There are a decent historic photo of the yet-to-be finished KLM Terminal (today the VIP Terminal but still sporting the sky-blue roof trim of KLM). Unfortunately, no good shots of the main Pan Am terminal, which I've only ever seen in photos and in person as a multi-storied hollow concrete shell. I am not even sure what the "interim terminal building" was, as it looks to be a finely-crafted steel-spanned, winged-roof structure. No such shed exists today, but maybe Pan Am hadn't even built the bigger building yet, and that was what the "interim" was anticipating.

Another good illustration, and what reminded me that I should post the document, is a map which catalogued intercontinental flights to, from and within Africa. The monochrome map is too low-tech for 21st century eyes; its too easy for the lines to cross over and get lost, but its fun to look at, it shows SAS's flight to Rio de Janeiro as well as KLM and Sabena's flights.

But the best part of the document has got to be the watercolor-washed perspective drawing of a future RIA as proposed by the engineers and architects. Too cartoonish to be technical, the poster board acts as an emotional hook to invest in a new airport for Liberia. The scene is recognizable, most notably by the meandering Farmington river narrowing away to the horizon, and the general arrangement and direction of the runway, landslide structures, airside facilities, and waterway are all the same.

But in place of the familiar array of small, bland terminals of today, here RIA looks if not like a miniature Laguardia than at least bigger than what might suit the needs of Madison, Wisconsin or Montgomery, Alabama. Clearly shown is a multistory, multi gate main terminal with early-iteration passenger bridges to the airliners, which here seem to consist solely of a prototype profile of the yet-to-exist B747-100. It is too-wide wings and the too-bulbous visage of these fanciful jumbo jets that most gives the painting its Warner Brothers-backdrop quality.

That this impressive volume has been gathering dust in the sub-sub of the LOC for decades was a treat to discover; what's more curious is how it was always seemingly dead on arrival. At the time of its production, the study rightly anticipated a Liberia that was soaring upwards, at least a decade and a half from its economic peak.

More relevantly, Pan American Airways, which again was not only the primary commercial user of RIA but also the manager of the airport on behalf of the government, would continue adding capacity at Robertsfield and across Africa throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s, up until the oil crisis and related pan-African stagnation first curtailed the viability of jets from New York to Cotonou, Douala or Kinshasa. Yet tiny Monrovia would remain among Pan Am's African destinations to the very end, including many years in which real B747s would in fact land at the airport multiple times per week. It is therefore not immediately apparent why, at the crest of global optimism in 1965, the grander visions of this proposal were never implemented.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Air Service to Liberia, forty years ago

A smartphone photo from an African year book from about 1973, which I discovered when suddenly finding myself in the Library of the Nigerian Embassy earlier this year (which maybe could make the subject of a separate post). Monrovia was served by six African airlines, six European airlines (SAS from Scandinavia, and flew from Zürich to Monrovia on the way to Brazil. UTA is French), MEA (Middle East Airlines) from Lebanon, as well as its own domestic airline, and of course Pan American. Today it is served by nine, one of which, Delta, is leaving.

A better comparison than number of carriers would be to tally the number of weekly seats on planes departing the country; many of these 1970s flights were not on jets, and even the single isle DC-8s and B707s from New York and Europe are comparable in size to the 150-seat B737s that Kenya uses to Accra today, rather than the two-aisle wide body A330s and B767s that British Airways, Delta, Air France and Brussels use on their routes to RIA, which typically have capacity of up over 250 passengers. So the total passengers numbers may have grown, even if the number of airlines and destinations is smaller (and continues to shrink).

Note in the short section under tourism the paltry number of tourists in previous years: only 250 in 1971, rising four-fold the next year, although the fact that the address is provided as “Government Wharf, Freetown” means they mixed up this entry with Sierra Leone, so who knows.

Lastly, I didn’t know Hughes Air West was involved in Air Liberia. At times it really seems as though all of corporate America was lending a hand to Liberia in those days. I'd love to dig into the Hughes company archives and see how that partnership transpired.

Friday, July 11, 2014

It Seems Official: Delta Departing Liberia

Arriving in Atlanta from Monrovia on one plane, December 2011.

This weekend the Monrovian flying public was wracked by news reports indicating that Delta Air Lines, would be ending its services to Liberia. Delta has served Robertsfield since September 2010 with multi-week wide body flights to the U.S. via Accra, first from Atlanta, then more recently from New York-JFK.

While one of the more credible publishing houses cites credible sources in its reporting, there was initially no official word from Atlanta. Normally, news of withdrawal from markets is reported after an official press release from the airline itself, and even though FrontPage Africa has now reprinted a statement to the paper directly from Delta headquarters, the airline has made no official general public announcement.

Presuming it is 100% verified, Delta's departure at the end of August would leave Liberia with weekly service by just two intercontinental carriers, whereas in May there were multi-week options to three cities in Europe and one in the U.S. on four different global airlines. Now there will be just a pair of choices: British Airways to London-Heathrow and Brussels Airlines, which is Liberia's longest serving long-haul carrier with its Sabena-heritage going back decades. Neither of the remaining airlines, of course, offers a critical trans-Atlantic link to the United States.

Air France, which had flown twice-weekly from Paris CDG to Monrovia for over three years, stopped its service at the end of June, citing weak passenger numbers of poor revenue volume. It is likely that Air France headquarters looked not only at mostly-empty Airbuses but also its regional developments: in terms of its airline alliance and owned-carriers, it is still possible to fly to Monrovia via its network: Skyteam member Kenya Airways still flies to Monrovia via Accra, where Air France's Dutch subsidiary, KLM, takes a planeful of people to Amsterdam every single night. Likewise, Air France has been steadily upgrading its service to neighboring Abidjan, and as of this autumn will rotate in an A380 super jumbo thrice-weekly on its route from Paris, in the face of the rapid regrowth of Cote D'Ivoire, where it recently invested in the new national carrier, Air Cote D'Ivoire, which itself now flies non-stop to Monrovia several times per week. From Air France's perspective it probably makes more sense to have passengers connect in Abidjan rather than sit through a same-plane stop in Sierra Leone.

The good old days, c.2010

As for Delta, its ambitious, circa-2009 expansion plans across the African continent, from Luanda to Malabo to Nairobi, have been greatly curtailed. Visitor numbers from the U.S. to Africa peaked in 2010 have actually declined significantly in the past three years (I was shocked to learn: see below), and instead of spreading farther Delta has withdrawn from markets in the face of low passenger numbers, or security concerns: Monrovia joins an forlorn crowd of Cape Town, Cairo, and Abuja, have all fallen off Delta's map since 2009.

In looking at the last five cities those reductions left on Delta's African route network, it is amazing that tiny Monrovia has lasted as long as it has when compared to much larger, more important cities: Accra, Dakar, Lagos, and Johannesburg.

In fact, this is not the first time that I've remarked that it is astonishing that Delta actually started flying to Monrovia at all, much less flying past much bigger markets like Casablanca to do so, and it surely can be understood that passenger numbers do not justify what is surely a high-cost operation, in terms of security and crew management alone for such a small, distant destination. Ultimately, the Monrovia flying public is just too small for a three-times per week wide body to JFK.

Slower economic growth, most notably the still-lengthening trough between the frenzied exploration phase of extractive projects and the revenue-generating production phase of most of them, and of course Ebola have all surely contributed to a deterioration in passenger numbers. Most ironically, an improving socio-political situation has surely meant a decline in NGO activity (do such statistics exist?) which means fewer World Bank suits in the front and fewer save-the-world backpackers in the back of the planes.

Delta's arrival to Liberia in September 2010 was one of the high-water marks of Liberia's post war redevelopment; the first time since Pan Am departed in 1986 that an American commercial passenger plane scheduled service to Liberia. This blog has been progressively running a series of "Flying to Liberia: Its Getting Easier" posts over the years. Now that situation is rapidly retrograding.
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