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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Dispute grounds Cameroon air ambitions
By Jo Foster
In Douala

KLM aircraft at Douala
KLM has high hopes for West Africa

At first glance it was a normal scene at a typical West African airport.

Bright sunshine greeted KLM flight 579 as it touched down in Douala, Cameroon's commercial capital. It taxied along the runway, past thick rainforest, to the rundown terminal building with its peeling orange paint and gaudy signs.

But instead of motorised staircases or specialised lifting equipment, a household step ladder was put up to the hold and workers started to carry baggage down.

With no ground handling staff to service its plane, it was not the warm welcome the Dutch airline expected for its inaugural flight to Cameroon.

Clashing carriers

It all results from a falling-out between local handlers and Kenya Airways, an affiliate of KLM.

The East African company has been locked in a financial dispute with Cameroon's national flag carrier since April.

Cameroon Airlines is demanding $1m from Kenya Airways, as payment for its airport handling services; Kenya Airways disputes the figure and says the local airline has failed to provide invoices to justify that amount.

As a result Cam Air - the country's only provider of ground facilities - refused to service Kenya Airways.

It has been three months since Kenyan planes last took to the air out of Cameroon - that's a total of 110 cancelled flights.


Early on Wednesday, Cam Air announced that KLM would also be denied access to facilities - at a time when KLM's inaugural flight to Douala was already in the air.

Douala airport
Douala has the potential to become a regional hub
"Aviation is difficult enough in Africa without this sort of hindrance," says Ron Schipper, KLM's local boss.

For Kenya Airways, the three-month dispute resulting in the suspension of so many flights is a mounting financial nightmare.

For passengers wanting to travel from Cameroon to South Africa, the Middle East or Asia, it is a major inconvenience.

In hotel bars in Douala, business people speak wearily about how it is quicker to fly to Paris, Brussels or Zurich and get a connecting flight back down the length of the continent to Johannesburg.

Flying direct is often impossible, always expensive and rarely reliable.

'Playing tough'

Managers of both African airlines are due to meet Prime Minister Peter Mufany Musonge of Cameroon on Thursday in the hope of reaching a deal.

But Ignatius Sama Juma, the general manager of Cameroon's Civil Aviation Authority, is not confident.

"I once tried to arbitrate" he says. "But both sides are playing tough".

West Central Africa is becoming an increasingly significant destination for international airlines which target the business community - especially the oil industry, which depends on large communities of expatriates.

"From an economic point of view Cameroon has the potential to grow" says KLM's Ron Schipper.

"But good air transport is needed to accelerate that growth."

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