Up and away: Upgrading facilities and expanding capacity at the nation’s airports

For some years, the development of Ghana’s airport infrastructure lagged behind economic growth. Accra’s airport, the gateway to the country, came under pressure from rising passenger numbers, while major regional centres lacked the connectivity that could have helped them better tap into the country’s growth. Now the government, backed by international financial institutions, is addressing the issue, with a range of investment projects expanding capacity and a view to supporting economic and social development and enhancing Ghana’s position as a regional aviation centre.

Kotoka International

Ghana’s main airport is Kotoka International Airport (also known as KIA), around 10 km from the centre of Accra. On a 65-ha site at an elevation of 63.5 metres above sea level, the airport is somewhat hemmed in by the surrounding city, which has grown around it, hence suggestions of relocating the capital’s airport over the longer term. KIA has operated as a civilian airport since 1946. The airport handled a total of 2.4m passengers in 2014 but is considered to be operating at over capacity. Therefore, the Ghana Airports Company Limited (GACL), which runs Ghana’s four existing commercial airports, is implementing an expansion programme, including the addition of a third terminal and the enlargement of facilities. The expansion should take the airport’s capacity to 5m passengers a year, well ahead of current needs, but with scope to handle an expected increase in arrivals over the coming years.

Despite Ghana’s economic difficulties in recent years, with falling commodity prices, the softening cedi, concerns about macroeconomic stability, and political uncertainty following the disputed 2012 election, passenger numbers at KIA have held up fairly well. International flight aeroplane movements at KIA in 2014 totalled 24,871, with 12,451 arrivals and 12,420 departures. This represented a rise from 23,437 in 2013, with 11,720 arrivals and 11,041 departures, and 792,355 movements in 2012, with 11,041 arrivals and 11,041 departures.

International passenger numbers dropped in 2013 and 2014, perhaps due to slowing business traffic and pressure on Ghanaians’ disposable incomes leading to lower demand for flights. The airport handled 1.65m international passengers in 2014, down from 1.67m in 2013 and 1.73m in 2012, though up from 1.59m in 2011, when Ghana’s economy was booming. International freight handled by KIA in 2014 totalled 54,390 tonnes, down from 162,305 tonnes in 2013 and 46,577 in 2012. Domestic passenger numbers totalled 719,234, down from 778,466 in 2013, but up from 543,379 in 2012 and just 199,073 in 2011, as Ghana’s domestic flights industry was taking off.

Airport Expansion

In September 2015 the African Development Bank (AfDB) approved a $120m corporate loan to help support GACL’s capital investment programme in its airports, including the construction of terminal three at KIA and the rehabilitation of provincial airports including Kumasi, Tamale (Ghana’s third city, in the Northern Region), Ho in the Volta Region (in the south-east of the country) and Wa in the Upper West Region. The loan is the AfDB’s first move into private sector funding in the Ghanaian transport sector, reflecting the growing international view that transport infrastructure is an important enabler for long-term growth and social development throughout Ghana.

The AfDB’s contribution is part of a $400m package financed through loans from other development institutions and commercial banks. Given Ghana’s fiscal situation, with the government under pressure to reduce spending and the need for infrastructure to keep pace with economic and population growth pressing, capital from international financial institutions and other banks is particularly important.

The AfDB said in a statement that the financial package would help Ghana modernise important infrastructure and upgrade KIA to boost its potential as a regional aviation hub and gateway to West Africa, through increasing passenger handling capacity and enhancing efficiency, while also strengthening safety standards. The bank said that it saw the development of KIA as particularly beneficial to the growing tourism and oil and gas industries, and that improved connectivity would reduce the cost of doing business in Ghana, enhancing the country’s overall economic competitiveness. The AfDB also emphasised the importance of developing KIA in enhancing regional integration, with Ghana “serving as a platform in connecting regional landlocked countries to international markets and support inter-African trade”.

The bank asserts that aside from providing longterm finance – which can be harder to access from commercial banks – it will ensure environmental and social standards are implemented in the project, and that its impact on development is as great as possible.

In October 2015 Joyce Bawa Mogtari, the deputy minister of transport, said that construction on KIA terminal three would start before the end of the year. Expansion work is under way, with arrival and departure halls being expanded, new gates being constructed to increase capacity for wide-bodied aircraft, and taxiways being redeveloped to reduce the time aeroplanes spend on the runway, speeding departure and landing procedures. The deputy minister emphasised the importance of coordination between stakeholders to ensure the expansion programme was well implemented and cost-effective.

In May 2015 GACL announced that the expansion of existing facilities at KIA would be complete by the end of 2015, including adding an extra 5142 sq metres to the 6013-sq-metre arrival hall. The development also includes installing two new pieces of baggage handling equipment, doubling capacity at the arrival hall, adding more immigration booths to reduce congestion, as well as infrastructure upgrades to air conditioning, plumbing and mechanical works, and the addition of office space.

Kumasi International Airport

In December 2014, President John Mahama inaugurated the upgraded airport at Kumasi, following a $29m overhaul, including improvements to the runway and taxiway surfaces and the installation of ground lights to allow flights at night. The project also granted Kumasi international airport status, with the hope that the airport will become a gateway to central Ghana for international traffic. The project started in 2013, upgrading an airport that has been operating since 1943. Kumasi currently handles around 450,000 passengers a year, according to government figures. The city has a population of around 1.7m and is the capital of the politically and economically important Ashanti Region, home to 11m people.

However, as of mid-2015, no international flights had been launched from Kumasi. Africa World Airlines (AWA) has expressed interest in starting three flights a day to Lagos, the economic capital of Nigeria, as has Starbow, another local carrier. AWA, the first airline to launch night flights from Kumasi, is also eyeing linking the airport with the redeveloped Tamale airport.

Regional Centers

In July 2015 Dzifa Attivor, the transport minister, announced that the first phase of Tamale airport’s rehabilitation and expansion works would be completed by the end of the year.

The $100m contract for the airport project was awarded to Brazil’s Construtora Queiroz Galvão in November 2013. The first phase will see the runway at Tamale extended to 3490 metres from 2480 metres and see a complete lighting system installed, allowing bigger aircraft – including Boeing 747s – to land and strengthening the airport’s position as an international gateway, becoming the third international airport in the country.

Tamale, which handles around 200,000 passengers annually, according to government figures, is expected to function as a centre for direct flights to Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, reducing pressure on KIA and lowering costs for passengers. Tamale lies in Ghana’s north, where there is a substantial Muslim population.

Speaking at the ground-breaking ceremony for the project in September 2014, President Mahama said that the airport’s expansion could also help support the development of tourism and agro-processing in the region. Over the longer term, the airport could become a hub for the wider inland region, serving West Africa and the Sahel, capitalising on its position and geographical room for expansion.

In September 2015, President Mahama cut the first sod in the $25m project to develop the Ho airport in the Volta Region. The development, which is funded by the GACL, is due for completion in September 2016 and is expected to catalyse economic development in the area, including in the tourism sector. It includes a mixed-use “airport city” with residential areas, hotels, and conference and entertainment facilities, around an airport which has a 1900-metre runway.