Ask thePilot: Of airports, hedgehogs and poverty. Meditations from an African slum.

Patrick Smith – Salon

Copyright Salon
Oct. 17, 2008 | DAKAR, Senegal — Back in May 2007, I served up a scathing critique of West Africa’s busiest airport, Léopold Sédar Senghor International, in Dakar, Senegal. Between the grime and the mosquitoes and the unrelenting onslaught of touts and hustlers, I declared it nothing less than the world’s worst airport.
I have since been back to Senegal. Conditions are slightly better, thanks to a new, air-conditioned departure hall, but not much else has improved. The arrivals area remains dirty and decrepit, and those who arrive or depart during daylight will notice the incredible volume of litter abutting the runways and taxiways. The grassy area south of the main parking apron, photographed here, looks like a plastic bag farm.
So with this in mind, you’d think I would have rejoiced after recently learning that a brand-new international airport is in the works for Dakar, to be built 28 miles southeast of the city. Completion of Blaise Diagne International, named in honor of the first black African elected to the French Parliament, is expected sometime in 2011. The Saudi Binladin Group, an experienced airport builder owned by the estranged family of You Know Who, is heading construction. A German company, Fraport AG, operators of Frankfurt International, will administer the facility for a contracted period of 25 years.
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I happen to think it’s a terrible idea. Or a needless one, at any rate.
As a general rule, you build a replacement airport because the existing one has run out of room or is hopelessly overcrowded. Its faults duly noted, Senghor International is plenty spacious. There is loads of room on the tarmac and it has a long (if unusually narrow), instrument-equipped runway. What it needs is a larger, more modern passenger complex. There is ample room for that as well, and obviously one could be built for a fraction of the estimated $450 million to be spent on a whole new airport.
Senghor is also close to the city center. Placement of the new airport, far to the south, is a curious one. On the one hand it will make things easier for the thousands of European tourists who vacation each year at the beach resorts along Senegal’s southwest coast. On the other hand, it will require that a massive new highway be built. The existing southbound road out of Dakar is a nightmare of traffic, dust and fumes, and a driving time of up to three hours to or from the airport would be unacceptable. Construction of the new highway has already begun.
Presumably the government of Senegal sees this enormous dual project as a national investment. Big new airports mean more jobs, more passengers, more revenue; a smooth new highway can relieve some of the capital’s notorious traffic jams.
Then again, Africa being Africa, perhaps this is overly optimistic. Call it “development,” or call it a half-billion-dollar opportunity for contractors and politicians. Senegal’s president boasts that not a franc of state money will be needed. Funds will come from passenger taxes and foreign investors. I’m nevertheless reminded of white elephant airports that I’ve seen in Mandalay, Myanmar, and in Timbuktu, Mali. Oversize and underused, they are statements of hubris and deceit, monuments to money that ought to have been spent elsewhere…
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