ancienne aérogare mayotte 

         

Above, the old airport arrival hall. Three hundred people in a very small space with a small conveyor belt, and one or two men in the middle of the conveyor belt, pushing the bags together in order to fit more bags on the belt. You see, the belt would quickly become full up, and the owners of the offending luggage would always arrive last. A couple of fans in the middle of the ceiling would distribute the bad spent-the-night-in-the-plane-and-could-do-with-a-shower smells as evenly as possible, and a TV screen would broadcast Parabole Mayotte without the sound on.

        

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This was the plan for the new airport, which was to be built in 2013-2014, and opened on May 14th this year. Pretty close to reality, actually. It's a big wooden structure with solar panels on the roof, a taxi lane and a paying 300-space car park, none of which existed here before. A pretty expensive car park too, for that matter. The old airport had had a good number of parking spaces, which were always full, as well as a grass field where you could park your car while you went off gallivanting in France or wherever. Now, they've closed up the field with breeze blocks, so parking spaces are few and far between. The system is geared towards taking the taxis to the airport from the ferry rather than driving to the airport, which isn't a bad idea as so many cars driving across tend to block up both ferries for a couple of hours either side.

Until the opening of the new airport, people could park for free. Now, the first twenty minutes are free, and that's it. Long-stay parking costs 100€/week and 312€/month, which as far as I'm concerned is absolutely through the roof. The official spiel is: "The announcement of paying parking spots has been welcomed by the general public, no doubt because the Mahorese have understood that that was the price to pay for security, comfort and modernity". Humph.

        

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What surprised me at first was the stickers on the taxis. Before, taxis were just regular cars, any colour and any size, with a "TAXI" sign on the roof. Now, the taxis that go back and forth to the airport are officially authorized and bear an airport sticker to prove it. They have to be specially trained (cough cough cough) and must sign a "Chart of Quality and Welcoming" to obtain access to the site. When you get off the ferry linking the two islands - the airport is on the small island, and most people live on the large one - you quickly arrive in the taxi car park, where all the taxi drivers will shout "Aéroport, aéroport!" at you as fast as possible to get you into their car. Once their car is full up, they take off at full tilt towards the airport, then come back for another load. As there are now five airline companies operating from Mayotte  - Air Austral (Mayotte-Reunion-France), Corsair (Mayotte-Madagascar-France), Kenya Airways (Mayotte-Kenya-South Africa), Ewa Air (Mayotte-Comoros-Mozambique) and Inter-Îles (Mayotte-Comoros) -, there are planes pretty much all morning, so this can continue for quite a while. The driver I was with told me that he had been going since half past five that morning, and wouldn't be stopping until six in the evening.

The question, now that fewer taxis are authorised to enter the airport area, is to see whether the price of the taxi drive will go up. It was 2.10€ when I went in July, which may seem very cheap, but these are collective taxis with four to seven seats, and the drive lasts about five minutes.

          

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The back of the new airport, where the planes and baggage trolleys go. The airport people (SEAM) have enlarged the area in order to welcome more planes simultaneously, which is helped by the new passenger-holding capacity. At the beginning of July, they started demolishing the old airport to have more space to park the big carriers. The idea is to gain about ten hectares, with which they will enlarge the parking and turning areas. This increase in aeroportuary activity also means modernizing the equipment and increasing the number of staff working on the site: total estimated cost, about two million euros.

            

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Wooden structures everywhere, actual shops where you could buy something to eat or drink as well as touristy souvenirs of Mayotte (t-shirts, stickers, flip-flops...) and maps and guide books of nearby countries such as Madagascar or Mozambique, a well-devised queuing system compared to the anarchy that used to reign in the area... The ground-floor space is open on three out of four sides, and you can literally walk straight through it and back out again. Now, the airport in Mayotte looks like any other airport, even though it remains a very small one. It's completely lost its third-world charm, but at least it's just about functional. There's even an escalator, the first and only one in Mayotte. I couldn't believe that.

Over a total area of 7500m², the whole construction of wood and glass is designed to use natural daylight as much as possible and therefore to reduce costs linked to air conditioning and electricity. The airport is three times bigger than the old one, and the dimensions were calculated to follow the (hopefully) increasing number of passengers up to 2026, when there will theoretically be 600,000 passengers per year (currently 300,000). The number of check-in stations has gone from four to thirteen (though only four of said thirteen are open at any given time, but you're not supposed to say that). There are now six commercial spaces: a 120m² duty-free managed by the Reunion Island company Mado Parfums (closed when I went through), a 102m² newsagents called Boutik'air, and a bigger bar under new management and with actual sandwiches rather than ghost sandwiches you never really wanted to ask for because you knew there wouldn't be any. There is also a juice bar somewhere, but I haven't found it yet. Prices inside the airport are higher than for the same products outside the airport because of commercial rental costs, and businesses must respect specific norms, so they have more employees per customer than in your average shop, for example.

The new airport cost 23 million euros, partly financed by the State and the banks. It's still being tested, and they're listening to what the customers have to say about it in order to put the finishing touches. It still needs polishing and could do with a bit of decoration, the walls are a bit bare. The name of the airport is Marcel Henry, one of the fighting figures in the battle to make Mayotte part of France. The official opening ceremony will take place on August 22nd, when François Hollande comes to Mayotte. (He was supposed to come at the end of July but changed his mind because of the airplane crash with 54 French people on board, so everything's being rescheduled to fit the new presidential visiting date).

          

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The baggage reclaim conveyor belt, which is at least four times the size of the old one. There is even a screen up, announcing which flight's luggage is currently being delivered. And during the hour it took to collect my luggage coming back from Reunion Island, the conveyor belt only stopped once.

        

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There are still just as many coolers coming through, though. And even a couple of TVs, one which proclaimed: "Caution, it is fragile. Thank you". I can't see those getting to their final destination in one piece, somehow.

        

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