President Macky Sall toured the brand-new Blaise Diagne International Airport in the town of Diass, 47 kilometres (29 miles) from the capital of Dakar, while the first international flight arrived from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in the afternoon.
“Senegal is taking flight,” Sall declared to an audience of dignitaries on the tarmac including the presidents of Gabon, The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, while supporters gathered in their thousands to celebrate the opening, banging drums and chanting slogans outside.
Work began in 2007 on the 645 million-euro ($767 million) airport under former president Abdoulaye Wade, but unforeseen problems and a change of construction company have repeatedly delayed the project and doubled anticipated costs.
Blaise Diagne — named after the Senegalese MP who was the first African elected to France’s parliament — is at the heart of Sall’s “Emerging Senegal” plan, which includes the construction of a new city, Diamniadio, close to the site in Diass.
The airport will be a key test of Senegal’s economic fortunes as the president seeks re-election in 2019, and forms part of a suite of plans to relieve the congested capital with a recently constructed conference centre, housing and planned stadium.
As the country invests more heavily in tourism, Senegal is also betting on the facility’s strategic position close to several beach resorts that are already heavily frequented by European holidaymakers.
The airport services at the site will contribute to the development of the special economic zone nearby, Sall said. “We need quality infrastructure which facilitates connectivity, creates jobs and contributes to economic transformation,” the president explained.
With a capacity of three million passengers, Blaise Diagne will still rank far below the busiest African airports and a long way off challenging Nigeria in the west African region, though plans for up to 10 million travellers are in the pipeline, according to officials.
– Uncertainty for new airline –
Passenger numbers have increased in recent years at Dakar’s current airport in the middle of the city, leading to long waits at security and contributing to chronic traffic jams.
The Leopold Sedar Senghor airport will become a military airfield from Friday.
The new airport boasts six footbridges direct to flight cabins, and will be able to service a range of aircraft including Airbus’s massive A380s.
Work was completed on the 4,500-hectare site — with 2,000 hectares unused in case of required expansion — by Turkish consortium Summa-Limak after a disagreement with Saudi Arabia’s Bin Laden construction derailed the final stage of preparations.
Summa-Limak will operate the airport for the next 25 years, furthering ever-closer economic ties between Ankara and Dakar.
A train linking the airport with the city is not expected to open until 2021, leaving taxi drivers in pocket but ordinary travellers nervous of arriving on time for flights in a city with unpredictable traffic.
Backed by loans from France’s development agency the African Development Bank (ADB), the West African Development Bank (BOAD) and Islamic lender the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), officials are celebrating the airport’s completion — but the future of Senegal’s new airline is less certain.
Air Senegal still does not have all the licences required to begin commercial flights and has a fleet of just two ATR 72-600s, but Aviation Minister Maimouna Ndoye Seck said international ambitions for the airport meant a well-performing national airline was “a necessity”.