Airport review: Kamuzu International Airport, Lilongwe, Malawi

OFFICIAL IATA CODE

LLW

THE FLIGHT

SAA171 Lilongwe to Johannesburg

THE ARRIVAL

I reach the airport via a four-hour road transfer from Liwonde National Park south of Lilongwe – a stretch that is variously potholed and freshly-tarred. The verges are a mishmash of grazing goats, children walking to school and people ferrying large items such as chairs, bags of coal and sheaves of grass on bicycles; we pass through no fewer than three police cordons, put in place to check cars' registration and speed. Instead of going via the city, my driver takes a shortcut along a bumpy dirt road and delivers me to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

THE LOOK

The two red brick wings on either side of the main terminal are charmingly reminiscent of the houses built among the maize fields in Malawi's rural areas. A much-needed upgrade is currently underway; undertaken by the Japan International Cooperation Agency in partnership with the Malawian Government, it includes an expansion of the existing terminal and the construction of a new departure wing and domestic terminal. Ultimately, the airport will be able to process passengers more efficiently. Meanwhile, the refurbished departure lounge is bright, airy and air-conditioned (a bonus in summer), and the baggage claim areas are spacious. A new radar surveillance system has brought the airport's safety standards in line with global standards.

CHECK-IN

The new international check-in will be the last area to be completed, so for now passengers must use the domestic check-in, which is reached via a breezy, open-sided walkway leading from an internal passageway at the terminal's entrance. There are just four counters in this modestly sized room, but the queue is short and the service efficient. There's also a toilet inside the check-in office. I imagine things would get stuffy when busy, with queues spilling out onto the walkway.

SECURITY

All bags are X-rayed immediately inside the terminal. After check-in, one must walk back down the breezeway and follow the signs to immigration. A security staff member at the entrance confirms that I may take through my bottle of water, but says I must be sure to drink it before boarding my plane (which I forget to do). However, the carrying of water onto planes isn't policed; and even though my bag is scanned again at immigration (where I must remove my shoes and place my tablet on a tray) my water isn't detected. I wonder wryly if the security guards are deliberately thumbing their noses at this wasteful practice.

FOOD AND DRINK

The separate departure lounge for all business class passengers (regardless of airline) offers a bar with complimentary drinks and snacks, as well as snack and soft-drink vending machines. Samosas, doughnuts and cakes have been set out for sale on a table in the economy departure lounge; there are also two bain maries which the sales attendant tells me will later be filled with meals including chicken, vegetables and hot chips. I'm surprised there isn't a café in the lounge, since it's already been revamped.

RETAIL THERAPY

Three small shops sell souvenirs – tea towels, handbags and clothing made from bright Malawian chitenge (fabric). You can also pick up Malawi Gin and South African wines along with bags of local coffee beans and ground coffee.

PASSING TIME

There's a public bar and restaurant on the open-air upper deck overlooking the apron (stairs can be found near the international arrivals terminal). Access is free for passengers and around $4 for non-travellers. Malawi carrier Ulendo Airlink has applied to develop a lounge, catering to international passengers, in a vacant part of the upper deck. If all goes according to plan it will open in early March 2020.

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ONE MORE THING

Artworks made by schoolchildren under the supervision of Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers line the walls of the corridor leading to immigration. They're a delightful reminder of the "warm heart of Africa" I've had the pleasure of visiting.

THE VERDICT

The distinct lack of a shopping mall vibe – those endless duty free shops accompanied by haughty officialdom that define modern airports – delights me. I wouldn't want a long layover here, but the airport is clean and comfortable and staffed by invariably friendly people.

OUR RATING 3/5

Catherine Marshall travelled as a guest of Bench Africa; see benchafrica.com

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