Maun trips the light fantastic…

Many people will never have heard of it, yet Maun Airport is one of the busiest in southern Africa. And now, as Alan Dron reports, it is receiving much-needed improvements to cope with growing numbers of travellers.

In terms of the number of passengers passing through it, Maun Airport, Botswana, appears at first sight to be a minor regional air centre, handling fewer than 300,000 people each year.
That number, however, disguises the true importance of the airport, some 600km north-west of Botswana’s capital, Gaborone.
As the airport says in a large placard above its frontage, it is the gateway to the Okavango Delta and Moremi Game Reserve. And that is the secret to its popularity.
The delta is a huge network of inland rivers. In the dry season, the countryside takes the form of open, grassy plains. In the rainy season from December to March, however, those plains flood, making it hugely attractive to a vast variety of wildlife.
Tourists flock to the region for safaris to observe lions, hippos, buffalo and crocodiles, often traversing the flooded areas in canoes for a close-up look at the animals.
The easiest way of reaching those safari areas is to fly into Maun. South African Airways, its regional subsidiary South African Airlink, and the national carrier, Air Botswana, all operate into the airport, which has a surprisingly long (3,700m) single runway (08/26).
Passengers disembark and catch connecting flights on light aircraft operated by companies such as Mack Air and Wilderness Air, to be ferried off to landing strips serving safari lodges and camps in the delta and elsewhere.
It is this stream of light aircraft – mainly Cessnas of one type or another – that makes Maun so busy. In terms of aircraft movements, it is the busiest in the country and the second-busiest in southern Africa, after Cape Town International Airport.
Traffic has expanded steadily over the past five years and the small terminal handled 278,000 passengers in 2019, an increase of 2.5% over the previous year. This increasing popularity means that it is congested at peak hours.
It has become so busy, in fact, that the Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana (CAAB) has embarked on an $11 million programme to improve its facilities.
The internal upgrade and rearrangement of services is designed to alleviate congestion for the medium term.
The existing terminal has basic facilities, including check-in desks, toilets, seating areas and a café. The light aircraft charter flights that ferry holidaymakers to their final destinations in the bush allow only a small amount of luggage per person (usually 15 or 20kg), with any extra baggage taken care of by the safari company being used. Typically, they will store the items on the travellers’ behalf and then return them to them when they eventually depart.
The Maun Airport upgrade, as the CAAB refers to the project, entails the expansion of the current terminal through a range of measures.
A new, larger, international arrival hall and departure lounge are being created, facing on to the apron. These will help to manage existing passenger numbers and also to attract new air services – an important source of foreign currency for the country.
On the domestic side, there will be similar expansion of both the arrival and departure passenger facilities. Both the check-in desk area and the concourse will also be expanded, to ease pressure from departing flights and allow passengers more space in which to circulate.
New baggage facilities will be put in place and a larger number of toilets will be installed.
Generally, the terminal will be given a facelift to improve its appearance and make it more attractive to both staff and travellers.
Outside the terminal building itself, a range of external works will include new or improved roads, carports, paving and fencing. Ancillary mechanical and electrical equipment – the essential behind-the-scenes systems without which no airport can operate – will also be installed.
When all these improvements are in place, Maun can look forward to years of continued existence as the gateway to the region.