State hits turbulence over wooing Ghana Air

Some criticize lack of caution in pursuing faltering airline

August 22, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

The warning signs were there - boldfaced and ominous - in the headlines of at least three West African newspapers chronicling the plight of Ghana Airways.

In the months leading to June 15, the day Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele traveled to Ghana on a 10-day trade mission to Africa, The Ghanaian Chronicle, The Accra Mail and Africa News ran articles about the airline under such headlines as: "Ghana Air's Excess Luggage Saga," "Ghana Air's Sinking Image" and "Why Ghana Air is Collapsing."

Nevertheless, Steele's delegation met with airline officials to discuss expanding the carrier's relationship with Maryland. After the meetings, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced "great news for passengers" - Ghana Airways would increase direct service from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Accra, Ghana's capital, and the airline was negotiating to relocate its U.S. headquarters from New York to Baltimore.

Now, however, Ghana Airways is no longer flying.

On July 27, the U.S. Transportation Department suspended all Ghana Airways flights to and from this country for alleged safety violations and for operating with an expired license. The order - the first-ever grounding of an international airline by U.S. officials - left more than 1,000 passengers temporarily stranded in Baltimore, New York and Ghana.

The suspension came as a blow not only to Ghana, but also to the state officials who aggressively recruited the airline despite its well-publicized troubles.

The carrier has made headlines in recent years for everything from overbooked flights and lost luggage to strikes, near-bankruptcy and mounting debt. London's Heathrow Airport seized one of its planes two years ago when the company failed to pay millions it owed to an airline parts producer.

The state-owned airline, the official carrier of its West African nation, has been led by four chief executives in the past two years.

Some legislators and aviation experts say the suspension raises questions about the state's courtship - which began under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening - of an airline with an unstable history.

"They [Steele's delegation] made such a big deal about going over to Ghana," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation. "But did anyone actually knock on the door of the airline and ask if it was still functioning?"

Franchot said that although the recruitment of international carriers to BWI's underused international terminal has long been a bipartisan effort, the dealings with Ghana Airways an example of "jumping before looking."

"This is a black eye not only on Ghana, but also on Maryland," Franchot said.

State officials defended their efforts to expand international service from BWI, including to developing parts of the world. But they said they were concerned about the airline's recent troubles too.

`Huge accomplishment'

"We see Africa as a growing target for Maryland companies, and I thought it [Ghana Airways' BWI service] was a huge accomplishment," said state Business and Economic Development Secretary Aris Melissaratos. "The disappointment is over the way the airline has run itself."

Steele declined repeated requests from The Sun to answer questions about the airline's troubles. But he said in a written statement: "We are hopeful Ghana Airways will work through its issues with the federal government and reach a resolution in a timely manner. Once Ghana Airways gets those issues resolved and is in full compliance with Government regulations, we fully expect their service at BWI Airport to continue and expand."

The recruiting of Ghana Airways arose from the state's desire to draw more carriers to BWI's $140 million international terminal, which has struggled to meet expectations since it opened in 1997. When Glendening first wooed Ghana Airways and Ireland's Aer Lingus to BWI in 2000, both airlines were praised as evidence that international service at BWI was beginning to thrive.

A year later, the two airlines were suffering from serious financial and management problems. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Aer Lingus' business took such a hit that it pulled out of BWI (though it resumed service again last fall).

Ghana Airways took a different route. Even on the verge of bankruptcy, it remained in the air until it was grounded last month - providing what BWI officials call an essential service to Maryland, home to one of the country's largest population of West African immigrants.

In June, Steele cited the airline's expansion plans as a chief accomplishment of his $148,000 trade mission.

"The added flights will boost tourism, trade and economic development opportunities for Maryland and for the African continent," Steele said. He estimated that the additional weekly flight would generate $16 million a year in economic activity for the state.

A month later, the airline was grounded.

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