Modernising the SSR International Airport

The new airport terminal building of Plaisance is being inaugurated today. Its modernisation, which began in 2008, has involved an investment of Rs 14 billion. It is stated that the cost overrun amounts to a mere 0.5% of estimated project development cost, which is on the extreme low side and reflects careful project development cost management. The new airport has a passenger handling area of 82,500 square metres and it is estimated that, with its peak passenger handling capacity of 1,640, it should be easily able to serve an annual passenger flow of 4.5 million. This compares with an actual flow of 2.69 million passengers in 2012. The airport can handle 60,000 tonnes of airfreight currently; with on-going work to extend further the scope of the airport, it is expected that freight handling capacity will go on expanding to 90,000 tonnes by 2025.

The airport is not the only key item of the country’s infrastructure being put in place. As it is plainly visible, the country’s road and bridge infrastructure is being improved and extended in almost all regions to take on an ever-growing volume of traffic. The transport sector will see further development in the near term with the contemplated implementation of a light railway transport system covering the most passenger dense areas of the country.

Simultaneously, extensive wastewater and sewerage projects are being implemented to serve areas that were left out of development in the past. Canals and drains are being constructed in various places to more easily evacuate floodwaters if and when they come about. The construction of the Bagatelle Dam has already been started while other reservoirs are being expanded to enable a better catchment and preservation of our water resources. Steps are also being taken to install additional electricity generation capacity to meet expected growing demand in coming years while the port harbour of Port Louis is being modernized with a view to increasing its capacity to handle a larger number of ships and cargo.

The airport is therefore one only of several infrastructure projects being undertaken. It is important to bear in mind that the airport of Mauritius has always been associated with our economic development. It was set up initially as an outpost for the Royal Air Force in 1943 while the Second World War was going on. However by 1947, it had already acquired some scope for civil aviation for the few who could afford to travel by airplanes in those days. The airport was rebuilt in 1955 to provide for its growing use for civil aviation.

It was again modernised with the construction of a one-storey building and by extending its landing strip in the 1980s as aircrafts having a bigger span started landing at the airport. Private jets started coming in along increasing commercial airline traffic. This was the period when our manufacturing sector was growing up at a fast pace. To keep up with international competition, the textile sector had to expedite its production to European markets with relatively short delivery delays. The cargo terminal proved to be extremely useful for us to be able to meet the speedier needs of our overseas textile customers and helped preserve our markets. The cost of airfreight was not so high as to make expediting air cargoes of manufactured products lose their competitiveness on external markets as compared with what the cost would have been by ship freight.

An efficient airport is a key factor in the perception created about a country. The airport is more often than not the first point of contact of visitors to a country. The faster and less cumbersome its clearance of passengers and the cleaner its overall upkeep, the more positive the first impression tends to be. One would recall how much Mauritians coming back from a trip to Singapore in the 1980s would be all praise for its efficient and expeditious handling of both passengers and luggage. Not that it was loose in any way as regards the element of control.

It will be nigh impossible to argue that security is lightly treated over there. While attending to this aspect of control, it is its meticulous organisation of work that has made the whole process look like a seamless movement. One would not be frisked about unnecessarily or be subjected to queuing up for long, being cleared by immigration or other public services at their own leisurely pace. No self-important airport officials would stand in the way of the rapid flow of passengers as it frequently happens in various parts of Africa.

The SSR International Airport could benchmark itself to such outstanding performers, not only in terms of how rationally and scientifically well-equipped the airport infrastructure is. The cost and comfort aspects of passengers going through the airport and the services it offers are just as, if not more, important. Surprisingly, an optimum situation for passengers going through an efficient airport is not the amount of time they spend while inside the building. It is the maximum use to which they can put the amount of time it takes them to be in the airport. Since the airport is no less a place of business, witness the numerous duty free and other shops which occupy a good part of the airport space, there is an opportunity to showcase this business aspect of both the airport and the country as a whole.

If you take the case of Dubai, many people see it both as an international travel and a shopping hub: the place has keenly carved out an international image for itself in these domains. This has made it take the place of other countries’ clumsier airport operators whose airport charges, heavy bureaucracy and poor handling of situations are burdensome, thereby pushing economic opportunities out of their natural places. It has thus disabled regional airports of the sort from acting as hubs for their own natural pool of passengers, making travellers use it (Dubai) as a preferred option for their international travel and commerce.

We should be happy that our airport is modernizing itself. Beyond this consideration, there is the need to see to it that its full potential as a connecting point is developed. The airport being essentially a service centre for travellers and aircrafts, it is in the long term that its contribution to the national economy is better defined. The more it gathers scope as an international point for transfers of goods and services, the more it builds up for itself a reputation as a world class infrastructure, the more it will generate international interest in what goes on by way of economic activity inside the country.

It has to stand up as our front line of defence for us against an increasingly competitive global market. Instead of merely adapting to or catching up with global changes as and when they take place, the airport is bound to remain a few steps ahead; it has to keep innovating to become the meaningful entry point that we are in need of for our future development. Let also the passenger who departs the country want to come back to it, not only to sustain our tourism activity but even more so by helping to transform the whole of the country into a thriving business hub and an extensive chain of contacts for starting and sustaining ever newer activities in Mauritius. Let our other infrastructures do justice to the modern airport by being equally world class.

* Published in print edition on 30 August 2013

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