Kigali International Airport

While many countries see aviation as an important part of their countries’ infrastructure, Rwanda stands out as one of the only countries in the world that have placed the air transportation industry at the core of its development plan. Succinctly, Rwanda intends its country and hub international airport to not only be the biggest aviation hub in Africa but to perhaps rivaling others like New York, London and its ideal goal, Singapore.

Let’s dive into its commercial aviation landscape and its airports.

What is the main airport of Rwanda?

As Rwanda is a relatively small country in Africa, Kigali International Airport serves as the primary gateway for both international and domestic air travel.

It has a single runway 3,500 meters (11,482 ft) long and is operated by the Rwanda Aviation Authority. It previously had a second runway, but this was shut down in 1993.

This airport has been upgraded in past years but still struggles to keep up with surging demand. The main two-story terminal building only has six gates, and despite being designed for a few hundred thousand passengers per year, actually facilitated 710,000 passengers in 2016.

To become the Singapore of Africa, Rwanda would first need to fix its airport capacity problem by building a new airport.

What is the new airport project?

Thanks to this demand, the government has made plans to build a new international airport called Bugesera International Airport. It will have a longer, 4,206 meter (13,800 ft) runway, with room for a second, and will operate in tandem with the existing Kigali International Airport. The first phase of construction will build a 30,000 square foot terminal capable of accommodating seven million passengers per year (more than ten times the original International airport), and a second terminal in 2032 that will allow it to cater for up to 14 million passengers per year.

Qatar Airways has bought a 60% stake in this new international airport.

“The partnership features three agreements to build, own, and operate the state-of-the-art facility,” the Rwanda Development Bureau said in a statement. “The agreements signed today mark a key milestone in the development of Rwanda’s vibrant aviation sector, in the context of the excellent bilateral relationship between Qatar and Rwanda.”

Originally the new airport project was estimated to cost $418 million US for phase one, and an additional $382 million for phase two. But with the inclusion of the new partner Qatar Airways, the airport budget has bellowed out to a staggering $1.31 billion US. These additional funds have allowed the airport to be redesigned for a significantly increased capacity, at the cost of project delays as the new plans were realized.

What about the country’s other airports?

Other airports in the country include:

  • Butare Airport in the south of the country. It has a single short runway of only 860 meters (2,820 ft) for regional jets
  • Kamembe Airport to the extreme west of the country. It receives plenty of traffic from Uganda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo thanks to its unique border location.
  • Gisenyi Airport – Like Kamembe Airport, this airport is located on the westerly border of Rwanda in the city of Gisenyi. It currently serves as a charter airport.
  • Nemba Airport – On the southern border with Burundi lies Nemba Airport. It has a single 1,100 meter (3,600 feet) runway.
  • Ruhengeri Airport – The largest active airport in the country by area, this facility serves the town of the same name and the northern state. It has a 1,480 m (4,860 feet) runway.

All of these airports are run and operated by the same government authority.

Rwanda’s airports in 2021

Like many other countries, Rwanda was hit hard by the effects of the 2020 global lockdown and had to close its airspace to all traffic (sans cargo operated by flag carrier Rwandair). But through an effective health program and implementing biosecurity features at airports, Rwanda was able to reopen its borders by August 2020.

As part of its strict entry requirements, Rwanda ensured that any new arrivals to Kigali had to have a negative COVID test and do a second test at the airport – quarantining at home or hotel for at least 24 hours until a double negative result was recorded.

This was so effective that the European Union approved Rwanda, the only country from sub-Saharan Africa, to fly operations to its home countries. While the virus has been a hurdle to overcome, it has hardly been a roadblock for Rwanda.

What can we learn from Rwanda?

It is not common that you find a country that does nearly everything right in the world of aviation, and when you do, the lessons can be invaluable.

Rwanda has correctly prioritized aviation as its saving grace to becoming an international power, supplying the right expertise to reach its ambitions with its partnership with Qatar Airways, and ensuring that its growth is not limited by capacity.

If Eways Aviation can offer one item of constructive criticism it would be this; while the capital is receiving plenty of attention, additional focus could be placed on regional airports especially those next to borders. Because other nations might lack the foresight to invest in regional aviation, Rwanda could effectively double-dip its aviation capacity from international passengers crossing from border communities.

Many countries in Africa harbor lofty ambitions of becoming a large flag carrier with an international hub airport, but it seems for Rwanda – this dream is close to reality.