El Geneina airport (HSGN) is located in the region of Darfur, Western Sudan close to the border with Chad which has experienced tribal conflict and economic upheaval in recent years. The airport recently received a very important upgrade that will have an impact not only on the safety of air operations but to the life of Darfurians living in this desert region.
Darfur covers an area of 493000 square kilometers and has a population of around 7.5 million. It was an independent sultanate for several hundred years, incorporated into Sudan by Anglo-Egyptian forces in 1916. The region is divided into five federal states: Central Darfur, East Darfur, North Darfur, South Darfur and West Darfur. El Geneina, sometimes named Al-Junaynah is the capital of West Darfur – a dusty town located 20 km east of the Chad – Sudanese border. It is also a transit point on the corridor linking the west and east coasts of Africa.
The first airport in El Geneina was built before Word War II as a stopover and refueling point for Imperial Airways, the mail and Transport Company that served the British Empire routes in Africa and Asia. During the war it served as a refueling point from West Africa to Cairo. Fuel was transported from Port Sudan to El Obeid by rail where it was loaded on camels or trucks for an 800 km trek across the desert. At that time the two unpaved runways were barely distinguishable from the surrounding desert and there is little improvement on those facilities today. The old runways are still unpaved but have been extended and compacted with gravel. This airport has been used in more recent times by Sudanese military, commercial companies and humanitarian operations. On 1 January 2008 African Union – United Nations Hybrid Operations in Darfur (UNAMID) took over responsibilities from the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS). El Geneina became a sector headquarters and logistics hub supplying around 4,000 military, police and civilian personnel deployed in Western Darfur.
On a regular basis HSGN has an average of 12 flights a day moving 2,300 passengers and around 200 tons cargo per month. But the unpaved runways imposed significant restrictions on aircraft’s maximum payload especially during the rainy season.
Due to the large number of operations and seeking to enhance safety for air operations in the region the Government of Sudan initiated the construction of a new airport. This is located 16 km east of the old airport and is called Sabera Geneina Airport (HSSG). The extra capacity at the new airport means than UNAMID is able to operate jet aircraft (B-737s and CRJ-200s) through the construction of a new asphalt runway. UNAMID provided one layer of asphalt for the runway, a mobile air traffic control tower, fire fighting vehicles and lighting system.
Sudanese commercial flights are connecting El Geneina with Khartoum; these operators are mostly using B-737s. The new airport has been officially announced in a Notice to Airmen and the old airport remains open only for military purposes.
The runway at Sabera Geneina Airport is 2,994 metres long and 45 metres wide. The airport also has two new passenger terminals; one for commercial traffic and one dedicated to UNAMID operations which serve an average of 12 daily flights. UNAMID has regular flights by CRJ-200 or DHC-8 to El Fasher, capital of Darfur and mission HQ and by helicopters to five locations in Western Darfur (Mukjar, For Baranga, Habila, Mornei, Masteri).
In a joint effort the ECR service is provided jointly by Sudanese CAA and UNAMID having an ICAO category 5 in case of an emergency.
The ability to operate jet aircraft in this region is essential for the United Nations. It allows regular passenger flights in support the peace in Darfur and the most important rotation of troops deployed in Western Darfur. In the past military units were airlifted by helicopters to El Fasher or Nyala, airports located 300 km away from El Geneina. This was a time consuming and expensive operation. A rotation of one battalion of 800 soldiers (plus baggage allowance up to 100kg per soldier) required around 80 sorties of MI-8 for passengers and up to 30 sorties for cargo. Airlifting troops directly to El Geneina brings a significant reduction of cost.
The new runway is also giving the option to fly cargo by IL-76, used extensively by UN Peacekeeping Operations in Africa. The ability to land heavy cargo aircraft in El Geneina is essential from an operational point of view and also reduces the cost of repatriation, as one day peacekeepers will be withdrawn from Darfur along with their equipment.
Peace cannot be achieved if the right conditions are nor put in place and transportation infrastructure is one of these conditions.
Although El Geneina still seems to be a sleepy provincial town its important geographical location gives significant potential for economic and social development. Currently Sudanese commercial flights are connecting El Geneina with Khartoum every day apart from Fridays by local operators who are mostly using B-737s and this is the only reasonable option that allows Sudanese people to travel to their capital and back. More passenger and cargo flights will come with peace and stability in this region.