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ZW$3bn for RG Mugabe Airport upgrade, amid faulty radar system



THE upgrading of the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport in Harare has been allocated ZW$3.1 billion by Finance minister Mthuli Ncube as fears mount that the port of entry has become a major conduit for smugglers due to inadequate security and a danger to civil aviation owing to obsolete radar equipment.


 Presenting the 2023 budget on Thursday, Ncube said the RGM Airport needed modern traffic control, surveillance, aircraft communication and weather equipment.

“Improvements in airport infrastructure will establish the country as a gateway to the continent and the world, benefiting from the rebound in tourism, as Covid-19 lockdown measures ease across the globe,” said Ncube.

He added: “Support will mainly focus on the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport, funded from a loan from China Exim Bank. Completion of the project will increase passengers and cargo handling capacity at the airport, ensuring it becomes one of the regional aviation hubs, attracting more airlines and facilitating tourist arrivals.”

“The Budget will provide ZW$3.1 billion for the procurement and installation of air traffic control, surveillance, aircraft communication and weather equipment in order to improve air safety and security.”

The growing concerns over the RGM Airport’s radar system were first raised by parliamentarians. Parliament’s Budget Committee headed by Oscar Gorerino in December last year raised alarm over the situation, describing it as a national security risk.

 In July this year during a briefing to the Defence, Home Affairs and Security Parliamentary Portfolio Committee, chief aviation security officer Gilbert Chimoto told the MPs that there was no equipment to detect minerals at the airport. In particular, there are no diamond-detecting machines.

Chimoto said the minerals were supposed to be detected before going through the security system. In its current state, the radar system at the RGM Airport has no capacity to detect light planes flying at low altitude, making it possible for smugglers to loot the country’s minerals and supply drugs undetected.

In addition, the RGM Airport as a whole again is not fitted with critical Distance Measuring Equipment (DME), which is essential for air traffic control. Currently the expansion of terminals at the airport is being carried out by a Chinese company, China Jiangsu. Afreximbank poured in US$153 million for the project, but the fund is a loan to the government of Zimbabwe.

 The departure and arrival sections are expected to be completed before the end of this year, according to statements made by Transport minister Felix Mhona in July when he led the last delegation that toured the facility.

 The current renovations are also expected to result in the construction of a VVIP lounge and pavilion at the airport. Before coming to the RGM Airport, the Chinese company upgraded Victoria Falls International Airport in 2016, which trebled the airport’s annual passenger handling capacity to 1.5 million.

The RGM Airport, despite boasting the longest runway in Africa, was last upgraded in 2001, which makes its facilities outdated. Minutes of a meeting held on 10 May last year between the Air Traffic Controllers’ Association of Zimbabwe (ATCAZ) and the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ) board of directors revealed that the radar system risk had deteriorated to the extent that a helicopter from Zambia landed at the Harare airport without being detected in April 2021.

The crew of the Zambian aircraft are said to have made claims that they had tried to communicate with the control tower attendants at the RGM Airport before landing, but did not succeed.

ATCAZ at that meeting complained bitterly about the dismal handling of air traffic control at the airport, which it said dated back to as far back as 2010.

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