Africa-Press – Gambia. The director general of the Gambia Civil Aviation Authority has informed the National Assembly that private ground handling company, NIRO, was not licensed to compete with national ground handler Gambia International Airlines because of the poor relations between his institution and the GIA.

National Assembly Members reviewing the GCAA’s 2021 audited report wanted to know whether NIRO was awarded license as a punishment to GIA due to a D39 million debt it owed GCAA.

In response, Fansu Bojang said: “The GIA, as you rightly observed, owes us D39 million at the time of this audit in 2021. But according to our books, what they confirmed was D14 million and part of that difference is because of their unwillingness in the past to sign some of their agreements because they see themselves as a public institution. In fact, as of today, their indebtedness to us is about D58 million.”

The GCAA boss told NAMs that the Ministry of Finance has in the past engaged both institutions to see whether an arbitration could be reached so that these debts are paid off but it was very difficult to get GIA to cooperate.

“As operators of the airport, we have a lot of tools at our disposal we could have used to force a payment or give out the concession or shut them at least from the airport but we are mindful that we are all government institutions,” Bojang said. He said the GIA had refused to cooperate with all repayment plans brokered by the Ministry of Finance.

“This was unacceptable to us but every time we want to enforce certain measures, the response we have is that GIA are the only ground handling, so if we shut them down then no flights will come to Banjul, because there will be no handling agent to handle them,” he said.

However, according to the GCAA boss, this is not the reason for awarding license to a private company.

“NIRO made an unsolicited offer which was considered by the GCAA before awarding the license and one of the reasons is that Niro’s financial benefits override that of GIA, because Niro is paying a concession fee of D3.5M per annum compared to GIA’s D2.5 million, and this is different from the rent,” he argued.

Mr Bojang added that the concession fee will increase as Niro makes more profit.

“Again, it is our position that it is quite unsafe to have one ground handling company that is struggling. So, it is important that we have options for them so that airlines coming to Banjul will not only have an opportunity to have choices, but it will also encourage competition and increase efficiency.

An unlike GIA, if Niro defaults on their rent and concessions, we can use a different ball game all together because that is a private company and the tools available to us in dealing with that are very easy. We will just deny them access and that means they will be out of business,” he said.

Mr Bojang said another positive thing is that since the introduction of Niro as a second ground handler, a lot of improvements have been registered in the services of both companies.

“We have seen GIA buy new equipment – new buses have come in and they also brought in extra high loaders and additional stairs. So all of a sudden we have seen everybody upping their game in terms of quality of services that they are providing to the operators which is really commendable. We hope that GIA will take ownership and responsibility and start paying our dues. But for the meantime, we are patient and liaising with our line ministry which overseas both us and GIA,” he said.

Mr Bojang said GCAA has “babied GIA for decades but instead of reciprocating and appreciating that, they just pull their noses at us.”

He added that when government signed up the open skies with the US in 2000, one of the key conditions was that the ground handling cannot be a monopoly.

“We have resisted the temptation to allow the entrance of a second operator despite receiving several offers because we were silently protecting GIA as a state institution but it has not been helpful to us revenue wise,” the GCAA boss said.

Bojang further stated that GCAA felt they are exposing themselves by allowing one operator because if they fail that would have an adverse implication on the airport.

“To guard against that, we felt the time has come to accept the entrance of a second operator,” he added.

He said Niro is a Gambian company and before going into ground handling, they have invested heavily into flight catering.

“That is a multi-million-dalasi investment and employs over 200 Gambians,” he said, arguing that countries like Senegal despite having a state ground handling service have allowed two other operators.

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