By KEVIN PAMBA
THE National Airports Corporation (NAC) lists on its website four international airports and 18 regional airports that it oversees around PNG.
The international airports are Jacksons in Port Moresby, Nadzab near Lae in Morobe, Mt Hagen’s Kagamuga in Western Highlands and Gurney near Alotau, Milne Bay.
The other 18, spread across the provincial centers, are classified as regional airports. Other private airports operated by mineral and petroleum extraction companies for their projects at Tabubil, Moro, Porgera, Lihir and Komo plus the small airstrips in the remote and rural areas serviced by third level airlines like Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF) and SIL Aviation are not recorded on the NAC list.
Most of the 22 airports recognised by NAC were built by the colonial administration before independence in 1975. Some like Jacksons, Mt Hagen and Gurney have been re-developed over the years mainly through funding support from international sources. Several more of the airports are earmarked for re-development and even re-location in the years ahead.
On Oct 23, this year The National published a report that quoted the Minister for Civil Aviation Alfred Manasseh as highlighting the importance of airports toward PNG hosting the APEC Summit next year and especially the pivotal function they play toward the development of the country.
In saying so, the Manasseh expressed concern about “vandalism, ethnic clashes and landowner disputes” continually disrupting the operations of some of these airports.
In this news report as can be accessed at: https://www.thenational.com.pg/vandalism-seen-big-challenge-civil-aviation-industry/, the Minister pointed out Mendi and Mt Hagen (Kagamuga) airports as two recent examples of airports affected by “ethnic clashes” relating to politics and other reasons, and noted Buka as one affected by “landowner disputes.”
He was quoted as saying: “Ethnic clashes around our airports contributed by various reasons such as politics had resulted in the closure of airports such as Kagamuga (Mt Hagen) and Mendi, affecting normal flow of things in and out of the province.”
“Landowner grievances, particularly in Buka, have affected the progress of the Buka Airport fencing project and poses a high risk in the Buka pavement upgrade.
“Apec summit in 2018 is quite significant for the country. It’s a great opportunity to showcase our country to the world.
“NAC is working closely with the Apec planning committee to ensure major aspects of Apec are addressed around the airport areas, which is the point of entry.”
“That’s a challenge for development partners and together we can enable the whole of Papua New Guinea to travel at an affordable price while not compromising the safety and security of our people,” Manasseh said.
He said the APEC planning committee could also look at improving rural airstrips not on the NAC list so more visitors can see the rest of the country.
The Minister makes a valid point about improving the colonial-era rural airstrips so as to spur on economic activity and improve the lives of the people beyond the APEC summit.
In provinces such as Southern Highlands, the intermittent closure of Mendi airport due to violent incidents or threats has gone on for some years and has affected the public in untold ways.
The obvious impact of the sporadic closures of that airport is that the outbound passengers and air freight service users of SHP have to travel by road to Mt Hagen or further down to Kundiawa, Goroka, and even to maritime ports of Lae and Madang to board a flight or send off cargo. It is the same with inbound passengers and air freight.
The cost to business and the public during each of the closures of Mendi airport including damage to the image of SHP in general over the years is unknown. Reports of lawlessness in the vicinity of the SHP capital since the burning of the provincial government headquarters in the wake of the 1997 national election and the declaration of a “failed election” in six out of nine electorates in SHP in the 2002 national election has painted the entire province with the same brush of lawlessness. The reality, of course, is different from district to district or when contextualizing the law and order issues from one ethno-linguistic group to another.
If Manasseh’s suggestion for the re-opening of old colonial-era airstrips is to be realized, it would be a welcome relief for the long-suffering businesses and law-abiding people of Souther Highlands. It would mean an alternate airport stands available for use every time the aerodrome in Mendi experiences one of it’s on and off shut-downs due to disturbances in the town vicinity.
A number of colonial era airstrips still lie idle across the province at government stations which could quite easily be re-opened.
Those in Pangia and Ialibu government stations, for example, are in a state to be easily upgraded and re-opened. Barring the present depressed economic climate, re-opening some of the unused government airstrips would be a boon for developing the outlying areas of the country.
- Kevin Pamba is a freelance journalist.