By Nthakoana Ngatane

MASERU – Lesotho’s only international airport – Moshoeshoe I, has had no proper toilets for years, and now it has no power because Lesotho Electricity Corporation cut it off to demand the M3million owed to it, that hasn’t been paid in years.

Civil Aviation director Motsoaole Lesupi says his department has failed to pay LEC because it never gets the budget allocations that it requests, and the debt was accumulating until the power company said enough is enough.

But ministry of transport principal secretary, Maile Masoebe, says his ministry doesn’t owe LEC, instead LEC owes the airport for the electricity that it gets from its solar power plant.

Masoebe says while the solar power plant at the airport belongs to the department of civil aviation, the electricity from there goes into the grid managed by LEC, and the understanding was that LEC would not charge the airport for that power, but it does.

“We are demanding that LEC should tell us how much power they get from our solar plant because maybe they owe us and they should pay us.” Says Masoebe.

In the meantime for flights to land and take off, a generator has to first be fired up.

But LEC public relations manager Makhetha Mot’soari says the plan was that one day the power from the solar plant would supply the airport and the excess would go into the LEC grid, but that has never happened, so the corporation doesn’t owe anything to the airport.

He says he can’t comment on how much the airport owes LEC, because the company policy is to keep clients’ records confidential, but LEC had no choice but to cut off government departments and industrial operations that were running it to the ground.

“We were owed M270million, and the bulk – M170million was owed by government departments and manufacturers, so we had to cut off supply because we no longer had cash to buy from Eskom and Mozambique or to maintain the grid”

On Friday the only airline that flies to Lesotho from Johannesburg – SA Airlink – was told by civil aviation that the runway lights have been declared unserviceable.

SA Airlink head of media relations Linden Birns says “no commercial flights can land or take off at the airport until the runway lighting system has been repaired and declared safe by the authorities, so all Airlink flights are suspended until it is repaired.”

On sanitation, Birns says while it is the responsibility of the government of Lesotho to maintain the airport, and the airline pays fees…

“SA Airlink has frustratingly raised the issue of sanitation repeatedly, and promises were made that it will be addressed but that hasn’t happened. The issue of public health at the airport is concerning, especially now with covid19” he says.

SA Arlink had already decided to fly only once a day because of the power cut, and says it was buying the fuel for the generator and toilet paper for the airport, but it too might stop completely if the situation is not resolved, according to Spokesperson Pearl Mahlangu.

“We stopped operating in Polokwane and Richards Bay because they do not meet the requirements for us to operate. If this continues we will have no choice but to stop operating.” said Mahlangu.

Lesotho Express News put it to Lesupi and Masoebe that not only does the airport not meet basic hygiene conditions and international airport standards, but it is also an embarrassment for all Basotho and the country.

To this Lesupi said: “Imagine how we feel, working there every day.”

And Masoebe said the rehabilitation of the airport was expected to start in June, but it was derailed by litigation during the tender process until a court judgement was passed only on Thursday.

He says South African engineering firm LTE was officially appointed today (Friday) as project managers for the rehabilitation of the airport.

The work is expected to be concluded in 18 months to two years, and Masoebe says it will start with the terminal building so that the toilets and sanitation can be resolved as soon as possible.

“We are aware that people who invite important visitors like investors prefer to take them to Bloemfontein and drive to Maseru because of the condition of the airport. That means sometimes we lose important visitors.” Says Masoebe.

On the electricity, he says if the issue is not resolved, his ministry will have no choice but to go to court to resolve it because LEC is governed by another ministry – ministry of energy.

Masoebe also reassures airlines, especially SA Airlink, that when the rehabilitation starts they will be consulted, but the airport will remain operational to ensure that traffic is not interrupted.

However airlines are not the only casualties, travel agents too say in addition to their losses during COVID-19 lockdowns they are again losing clients who prefer to fly to Bloemfontein and drive to Lesotho because of the situation of the airport and the uncertainty with the power situation.

A client who preferred anonymity told Lesotho Express News that when she flew to Maseru for the first time she was told on arrival that the plane was nearly turned back before it landed because the generator was not yet on.

“If the plane hadn’t landed i would have missed my meeting and lost the business, so on my second visit I decided to fly to Bloemfontein.”

The big question is – is the ministry of tourism that is now at the World Expo in Dubai wooing investors and tourists doing anything to ensure that there will be power, water and working toilets when they arrive?