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West Africa Rising: Senegal hopes new $450 million airport will make it a world trade hub

Senegal's government wants its new airport to become a 21st-century global hub, but why don't African infrastructure projects link the region's cities to each other better?

By Drew HinshawCorrespondent / February 1, 2011



Dakar, Senegal

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

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Let's book a flight.

Accra, Ghana to Lomé, Togo. Distance Traveled: 100 miles. Cost of Ticket: $727.

Compare that to a flight from Accra to London. Distance Traveled: 3,165 miles over two seas, the world's largest desert, its second-smallest continent, a pair of formidable mountain ranges, and finally Big Ben before touching down on one of the most crowded and surely expensive runways to land on in the world. Cost of Ticket: $618.

Why is air travel between African cities so expensive? It's less a question than an outrageous fact of movement on this continent where every country boasts a national airline, a national beer, and a mildewy airport to serve them both.

This is a continent whose infrastructure runs away from itself; just consider the road from Accra to Lomé, a brutal, four-hour trail of tears that rumbles over potholes and splashes onto flooded ponds. By comparison, the autoroute from Ghana's capital to its port – and from there, Europe – is among the slickest routes in Africa.

So, too, will be the $315 million highway being paved between Senegal's capital, Dakar, and its new $450 million airport 40 miles outside of town. The Senegalese government wants its new airport to become an 21st-century global hub: a 30-gate sleek cut of concrete and glass upon whose runways Africa shall meet the world.

The problem, it seems, is that they don't want anybody else to land there except Senegal Airlines, the national carrier conceived by the president's son and part-owned by (this is odd) US-based pop music star, Akon.

At least that's the message Brussel Airlines officials say they got this month when Senegal ordered the Belgian carrier to cancel its flights between Dakar and Banjul, capital of neighboring Gambia.

The Belgian airliner wasn't even letting passengers fly between Dakar and Banjul – their planes were just stopping in Dakar on their way to Banjul to refuel and let Senegal-bound passengers disembark.

But Senegal's air transport ministry – whose spokesperson was not available to comment – saw that as competition for Senegal Airlines. So the ministry, which is led by the president's son, ordered them to stop.

Now, the carrier is renting a plane to make its Dakar flights, a daily expense to the tune of "several tens of thousands of dollars," the airline's spokesman Geert Cosciot told me, yesterday.

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