USA Direct, No Veering -The Long Road to Delta Ends, First Flight Sunday


Notwithstanding the current infrastructurally cramped conditions of Roberts International Airport (RIA), Liberia in the days of old was the epic center of international air traffic in West Africa, with the likes of KLM, Pan Am, etc., plying daily schedules. But the golden days suddenly eclipsed; courtesy of long years of civil conflict which left the heretofore first class airport of RIA in total ruins and triggered the exodus of international aviation giants.

This condition, compounded by worsening insecurity, made Liberia a no-go area, leaving people to travel out of the country via fragments routes–not without getting connecting flights from neighboring countries. The condition endued during the last decade and half is now giving way to normality particularly contingent upon the incumbency of the Sirleaf administration. International airlines have begun to return to the country, including a major USA carrier, Delta Airlines, which is finally making its debut this Sunday since negotiations to get it on the ground were hatched in 2008. The Analyst has been leafing through the efforts, excitements and gains many associate with Delta’s advent.
It was in late October 2008 when Delta Airlines, which is the only U.S. carrier that is serving Africa, disclosed its preparedness to extend its flight to the Continent to Monrovia. It was expected to have started its flight in June, 2009.
International media organs quoted an executive of the Airline, Glen Hauestein, as saying that Delta had consented to include Monrovia to its industry-leading Africa network.”
While visiting the United States, where she was when Delta made the pronouncement, President Sirleaf said during a discourse at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., said she was excited to learn that Delta Air Lines has made the commitment to provide direct flight service to Liberia.
“Liberia continues to flourish and with the commitment by companies in the U.S. to do business in our country there is opportunity for continued economic growth,” the President said. “This development also provides convenience for Liberians in Diaspora to come home and to bring their skills and talents in support of the country’s development. Delta Air Lines is providing a means to bring business into the country and we welcome them,” she concluded.
Delta offers service between the United States and six African destinations with flights between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Accra, Ghana; Dakar, Senegal, Cairo, Egypt, and Cape Town in South Africa (via Dakar) and between Atlanta and Lagos, Nigeria, and Johannesburg, South Africa (via Dakar).
When Delta Air Lines touches ground Sunday, it would bring to an end long years of flight half from major United States air carrier.
Reacting to news of Delta, Information Ministry recalled in a press statement that it was May 1990 when the last Pan AM flight took off from Roberts International Airport in Liberia bound for the United States.
Ministry’s statement signed by Deputy Minister for Public Affairs, Jerolinmek M. Piah asserts: “In the 1980s, Roberts International Airport was the hub of West Africa air travel. The airport served as the centre of Pan Am’s network of African destinations from the late ’70s to the early ’80s. There was a non-stop service from JFK Airport in New York to Monrovia, connecting passengers to Abidjan, Accra, Dakar, Lagos, Conakry and Nairobi and Johannesburg. Roberts’s field was the regional aviation transport centre, with around ten flights daily serving thousands of passengers a week.”
According to Piah, when the present Government took over in 2006, it found the RIA in a state of complete disrepair: airport buildings were falling apart; the runway needed maintenance; the airport no longer met the minimum safety and security requirements set by the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO).
Describing the conditions of Liberia’s international air travel regime, the Ministry states that navigational aids were either obsolete or faulty, airport systems were abandoned and had not been upgraded for more than a decade.
In 2008, MICAT recalls, the U.S. Government was invited to inspect the airport, and they found it non-compliant with basic requirements and deficient in almost every safety and security area. The Liberian Government was informed that Roberts International Airport was not ready to receive an American carrier.
Shortly after the takeover of state power, the Johnson Sirleaf administration made the decision to restore all the marks of normalcy in the country, and the re-establishment of direct aviation links between Roberts International Airport and the United States was an important part of this agenda.
“It has taken years to reach this stage,” Piah wrote in MICAT’s statement. “The Government of Liberia needed to find a reputable international company to operate and run the airport. It contracted with Lockheed Martin Corporation to operate the airport and upgrade its standards to meet ICAO requirements, as the regulation of the airport had to be completely overhauled.
The Liberia Civil Aviation Authority (LCAA), which has regulatory oversight over all airports and Liberia’s airspace, Piah further said, began rewriting its manuals, regulations and staff to fully execute its duties.
“Bills had to be paid. Under the leadership of Director-General Richelieu Williams, Liberia paid its arrears to all international aviation forums. Staff needed to learn new skills to meet the demands of modern aviation safety. Director-General Williams began sending his staff for training in Europe, Canada, and other countries in West Africa.”
When the Government decided it wanted to attract J.S. commercial carriers back to Liberia, it discovered a whole new world of international safety and security regulations with which it needed to comply, he said, adding that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had changed aviation security forever, and countries like Liberia were literally decades out of step.
Thousands of hours were spent re-examining every aspect of the airport’s safety and security, and the result was 10 completely new policy documents, that included, National Security Plan, National Emergency Plan, AVSEC (Aviation Security) Training Program, AVSEC Quality Assurance Plan, Checkpoint Screener Program and Airport Security Program.
Others included Airport Emergency Plan, Airport Security Committee Documentation, Security Operational Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Contingency Plans
But it was not enough to simply draft new proposals, Piah said further. “Staff had to be trained and the airport had to undergo outside evaluation of the requirements by U.S. and international regulators such as ICAO, the Transport Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).
In 2008, the MICAT statement indicates, the TSA came to make its first inspection of the airport.
It compiled a voluminous list of 31 deficiencies, from perimeter security to passenger and baggage screening and training programs and then took another year of working with the TSA for Liberia to train the screeners and immigration officers, purchase or rehabilitate the necessary infrastructure and equipment, and to get the green light.
Finally, Piah said, in late May 2010, the TSA gave Delta Air Lines a provisional approval to begin preparation for direct services to Liberia, and a few months later the airport was fully cleared.
The imminent arrival of the first direct U.S. commercial aircraft in two decades is another milestone on Liberia’s steady path from poverty to prosperity, the Ministry said.
Aside from making it easier to travel to America, it will open up new economic opportunities, facilitate ties with the Diaspora and put Liberia back on the international map. Along with the recent signing of the Monrovia port concession, the arrival of the Delta flight is another important sign of Liberia’s re-emergence as a proud West African nation.
It was reported back in 2008 that Delta’s new service between Atlanta and Monrovia will operate once weekly using a Boeing 757 aircraft with up to 174 seats in a two-cabin configuration.
Passengers on the only direct flight between the U.S. and Liberia will benefit from significant time savings compared to other routes. Moreover, they will also be able to connect to 150 destinations throughout the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean via Delta’s Atlanta hub.


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