Our country and its airport will be talked about just as people talk about Singapore. We are not Singapore yet, but we are definitely on our way there
At last we have an Airport Terminal Building that we can boast about. It has been inaugurated with due fanfare but is yet to be inducted into operations. There is no doubt that there will be teething problems, and some hard nuts operating in the daily press will have a field day meticulously looking for and gleefully enjoying whatever does not go right the moment it is turned on. Remember the recent ballyhoo made about the speed cameras? Never mind! These hard nuts do not really know how the world works; they are a little like the proverbial frogs in the well – bounded as they are by the shores of our little Island; sadly, our own case is complicated by the fact that our frogs’ minds are distorted by some long-held legacy attitudes against certain people.
But our countrymen must know that all new technical devices and systems have teething problems, at times even fatal ones. Just think of the hundreds of people who have died in accidents before civil aviation reached the stage of safety that it has today. Or in space travel, for that matter. Of course there are systems that one can test out fully before bringing them out in the public – for instance, small devices like calculators and telephones, or big ones like cars and trucks, for instance. But even these systems had their flaws when they first came out. The blessing of the human race is that we can learn from our mistakes, provided we identify them by investigating them properly, and avoid making similar mistakes in future.
Sometimes we continue tinkering with legacy systems hoping to get a little more of what we already have, and in doing so we end up with a messy system. However, we may also be doing so because we do not have the means of doing otherwise. One is often forced to cut one’s coat according to one’s cloth and end up shabbily dressed. A recall of a few facts about the development of our airport will illustrate this point.
Plaisance: One of the most dangerous airports in the world
Way back in the fifties, we had a very basic airport – in terms of its runway, technical facilities and terminal building. The building, made of stone, was very small, like a small three-room house. It was not built as a Terminal Building; to begin with, insignificant as it was, it had its back turned to the runway. People do not usually build their houses with their rear sides facing the street. To get access to the front door of a house oriented in this manner you would have to drive round it to reach the front. So did it happen with our first airport “terminal”. After landing on the runway, aircraft had to taxi round the building in order to park in front of it.
Towards the end of the fifties we had moved forward constitutionally towards responsible government, and ministers had been appointed to oversee departments. It was Minister Sauzier, if I remember rightly, who had the responsibility, inter alia, for Civil Aviation. The officials in the department felt they had everything they needed in the way of passenger accommodation, but Minister Sauzier told them: “You need a new terminal building. Do something about it!”, and left it to them. They thereupon cogitated and awarded the contract for the design of the building to Messrs Gibb. Under their instructions, Messrs Gibb produced the design and oversaw the construction of the building that was to take us through the sixties, and with minor small additions, the seventies as well. It was of course larger than what we had earlier, but it was simply an appendage to the old, smaller building, keeping its unsatisfactory orientation intact. The old building became the new VIP lounge. The opportunity of creating a proper new terminal building facing the runway as in all countries was lost. Aircraft still had to taxi round the building in order to get in front of it. This severely constrained the possibilities of further extensions to the building.
After Independence, it was decided that a new VIP lounge would be required, and a fair-sized building was squeezed in between the taxiway and the older building, maintaining the same orientation, i.e. with its back to the runway. This new VIP lounge did not actually touch the old building – a small rectangular space separated the two. Shortly after it was built, and with the surge in air traffic following Independence, the terminal building proper became so inadequate for the combined processing of both arriving and departing passengers that it was decided to turn the newly built VIP lounge into a departure building for passengers; the main building was reserved just for arriving passengers. This was a wonderful example set by the political class, led by SSR, of sacrificing its interests in favour of the welfare of ordinary passengers. VIP processing went back to its earlier position at the other end of the building, where the very first “terminal” had stood earlier.
We thus started the seventies, the first full decade after Independence, with an airport whose passenger terminal was badly oriented and too small for the traffic (that kept increasing every week), and also with navigational facilities that led the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations (IFALPA) to classify Plaisance as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Air France, one of the first airlines to introduce the B707 jet aircraft into regular operations to Mauritius, banned night time landings by its aircraft at Plaisance for safety reasons.
I was appointed Director of Civil Aviation in 1971. In those days the Department of Civil Aviation, operating under the Prime Minister’s Office, was responsible for both the passenger side and the aircraft navigation side of the business. There was no AML. The Civil Aviation Division of the Prime Minister’s Office was located in the Ministry of Communications. While all major policy decisions were taken by the Prime Minister, lower level decisions affecting the department rested with the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Communications. This arrangement did not always work out to the advantage of the department.
One government policy decision that affected practically all other decisions concerning Plaisance Airport was that a new airport would be built in the North; the Prime Minister secured funding for this new airport from the Chinese government during his visit to that country early in 1972. Requests for additional facilities and constructions at Plaisance would not be entertained, except when absolutely necessary for the continuity of operations. This was frightening for me given the hazardous nature of aircraft operations at Plaisance. Furthermore, the end of the runway was not visible from the Control Tower, a totally unacceptable situation from the technical safety point of view; and there was no direct access road from the airport to the beach along the departure path of departing aircraft. Such a road was essential from the safety point of view, for the rescue of passengers and crews of any aircraft that accidentally came down in that area. It is statistically established that most accidents take place in the areas straddling the extended runway centre line for about one kilometre beyond either end of the runway.
There were also strong objections to the purchase and installation of an ILS system that would, in accordance with a plan I had put forward, significantly improve the safety of arriving aircraft; these local objections were also, sadly, strongly supported by technical experts from other governments, even though practically all airlines wanted the system as proposed.
Awkward Orientation of Terminal Building
By this time the Jumbo jet had become the standard passenger aircraft in Europe and North America, and Air France expressed its desire to bring such aircraft to Mauritius. SSR agreed, and at the same time he agreed the expenditure for the minimum civil engineering works that would be required for the operation. As a result 25-ft wide shoulders were built on either side of the runway and taxiway, and certain other minor technical improvements were made.
What to do about the passenger building, which would be clearly inadequate for the B747, was long debated in the Ministry but no solution was found. The awkward orientation of the Terminal Building made any substantial extensions impossible; besides, there was considerable reluctance into putting more money into Plaisance which was going to be abandoned in any case. There was some talk of sending our Immigration Officers to Reunion to process passengers of arriving B747 aircraft.
At a meeting shortly before the arrival of the first Air France jumbo jet, the Prime Minister (SSR) reviewed the arrangements made to receive the jumbo, and he at once turned down the Reunion solution – which would in any case have been applicable only to such aircraft arriving from Reunion, and not others. Instead, he directed me to do whatever I could in the time available to accommodate the B747 passengers. I decided that covering the space between the two passenger buildings would provide some relief, and rushed to the head office of Rogers & Co straight from the Prime Minister’s Office to seek their help in getting that done. This help was willingly forthcoming. They brought big plastic pipes and stood them up, put some iron in them, and filled them with wet concrete. On drying these then served as pillars for a steel tubing framework which was quickly patched up and then covered with iron sheeting to serve as roof. Concrete was poured on the unprepared ground to serve as floor, and as soon as it was hard enough, it was covered with vinyl tiles. In less than two weeks we had erected a tent without any prior architectural design or other form of preparation; it served as Arrival Hall for B747 aircraft for the rest of the decade and beyond. However, the whole patchwork was anything but beautiful.
Final cleaning was still in progress when the first Air France B747 landed. The crowd that came out of that aeroplane was so overwhelming that I said to myself: “You’ve had it, boy!”. A drowning man will catch at imaginary straws. I immediately called up the Establishment Secretary, explained to him the Prime Minister’s directive that we have to do everything possible to accommodate the passengers from the Jumbo, and told him that, having witnessed the first arrival, I absolutely needed half a dozen hostesses to help channel the passengers. I acknowledge with thanks his reaction: I was given oral authority straightaway, and written confirmation followed later. I called up people I knew, and was able to assemble a team of six girls to serve as welcoming hostesses. I believe the practice still continues today.
Around this time Air France was losing considerable sums because of the ban the airline had itself imposed on its jet aircraft landing at Plaisance at night. Again, the airline intervened with the Prime Minister for the provision of an Instrument Landing System. Again the Prime Minister agreed, and I was ordered to proceed with it. This decision actually made it conceivable that one day Plaisance might be the site of a regular airport, as there would no longer be any safety obstacles for such a development. The credit for this can but go to SSR; this is a matter to remember and highlight when discussing the merits of the new passenger terminal of the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport. I must add that the campaign against the ILS did not end with the Prime Minister’s directive. Strong rumours persisted to the effect that the system would not work, and even the Ministry of Communications was won over to this idea. While the ILS was under installation, I received a letter from the Ministry expressing these doubts, and urging me to put the system back into crates and keep it for the new airport. I replied that I had no such doubts whatever, and proceeded with the installation.
Government had authorised the construction of only one parking bay for the B747, but I could tell that this type would become the standard in the not too distant future, well before our new airport in the North could come on line. I used the funds made available for the OCAM and OAU Heads of States meetings to meet the needs of the traffic forecast for these meetings and, at the same time, to increase the number of B747 parkings to four, and the fuel companies promptly provided them all with underground hydrant refuelling systems. “C’est nous qui faisons le développement,” they proudly said.
Towards the end of the seventies the French Caisse Centrale de Coopération économique took a keen interest in developing the facilities at Plaisance, even if only as a temporary measure – the constraints of Plaisance, and the hardships inflicted on passengers could not escape anybody (except perhaps Ministry officials, who somehow become immune to the sufferings and discomforts of the public: it is to be hoped that they guide themselves in future with Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam’s desire that every passenger should be treated as a VIP). They agreed to fund the construction of a new building and a new Control Tower. I asked for a prior development of a Master Plan, but this was strongly opposed in certain quarters. The matter was debated in a meeting held, surprisingly, at the French Embassy in Port Louis; the opposition came from other colleagues in the government service, but at the end of the day, I brought it off. The first task that the French experts did was to prepare a Master Plan for the Plaisance Airport.
Around this time Plaisance was still served by the old road from Curepipe through La Peyre, Nouvelle France and Rose Belle. The decision for a new road had already been taken, and I thought that tall vehicles on this road could interfere with the safety of operations if it were to pass off the western end of the runway, as it would obviously be on higher ground than the runway. The safest path, according to me, was along the disused railway track to Mahebourg; if any lengthening of the runway towards the East was required, it could be done easily by bridging the fall in level that occurs in the ground there; the vehicular traffic to and from Mahebourg would then go through a tunnel, as it does in Heathrow. I discussed this matter with Hon E. Bussier, then Minister of Works; he basically agreed with me, but it would be for a technical committee of his ministry to decide, he said. He invited me to a meeting of that committee; regrettably, my idea was strongly opposed and it was thrown out. That was a great loss for the country with, in my view, no advantage to show for the solution finally adopted.
New Airport Project Shelved
In 1982, a paper by Hon Kailash Ruhee, then Minister of Economic Development, argued against the continuation of the New Airport Project. The economic situation of the country as well as the economics of the project were very soundly argued, and that alone could have served as the basis for a decision on the matter by the government. Sadly, the same cannot be said about one chapter that dealt with the technical aspects; it was obviously not written by the Department of Civil Aviation, and the less said about it, the better. As a result of the paper, the government decided to shelve the development of the new airport in the North. I was away on secondment at the time, but I thought that this decision concerning the final siting of our international gateway had been taken as a temporary step, not a final one. I could have been right or wrong.
A new terminal building, initially conceived as a temporary facility pending the construction of the grand new terminal in the North, was built at Plaisance, together with a new Control Tower. On coming into office in 1995, Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam brought about some improvements that helped with the handling of passengers (for instance, by digging under the existing terminal to create a new level for arriving passengers) and also accepted the long-held technical view that Mauritius should not be a single-runway country. Comparisons with airports like Gatwick could not hold water because the alternate airports to Gatwick are located in the same country, whereas in our case they are all abroad. The construction of a parallel taxiway solved this problem – in addition to expediting the flow of aircraft on the ground and, with faster liberation of the runway, in the air. This already showed a determination in the Prime Minister to do away with temporary arrangements.
That determination is laid out in full with his decision to build a totally new terminal building conceived from beginning to end as an up-to-date, even futurist, terminal building from scratch. It has been inaugurated on 30 August 2013. For the first time in our history we have a construction that is not the result of additions to older constructions. All concerned must co-operate to resolve any teething problems that will come up, in the knowledge that now onwards we have become an important aviation destination, and that our country and its airport will be talked about just as people talk about, for instance, Singapore.
We are not Singapore yet, but we are definitely on our way there.
* Published in print edition on 6 September 2013