New Airport Reflects Rich Papua New Guinea Culture

The exterior of the new building resembles the head of an axe made by local craftsmen. Photo by author.
The exterior of the new building resembles the head of an axe made by local craftsmen. Photo by author.

By Sally Shute-Trembath

Mount Hagen Airport is an example of how to incorporate cultural sensitivities and make sure local people are consulted on their needs.

In the lead-up to the official opening of Mount Hagen’s new international airport in Western Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG) late last year, landowners from the surrounding area gathered at the brand-new terminal building to express their pride in the airport and share the impact it was already having on them and their communities.

It was the latest in a series of discussions which had also included talks about how the airport could be designed to incorporate parts of the local culture.

The exterior of the new building has an axe head-like shape and is decorated with traditional grey and green diamond and scalloped patterns very similar to those you would see on the head of a Mount Hagen axe made by local craftsmen.  

“We felt it was important to include some local content into the building so we consulted local communities for help. They suggested the Mount Hagen axe be incorporated into the design, and it soon became the driving element of the design, said Henry Toma, a design consultant with the project. "Today, if you look at the shape of the building it looks the same as the Hagen axe.”

“The axe is an emblem of our ancestors,” said Onda Kiap, a landowner from nearby Kala village. “This new airport will be a model for PNG’s future airports. We appreciated being consulted on the terminal’s design and the end result reflects our ideas.”

By engaging communities on aspects of the project design right from the start, ADB—which financed the upgrade—has encouraged and empowered community leaders and promoted local ownership in the success of Mount Hagen’s refurbished airport.

“This new airport is a milestone achievement by the national government and ADB. It’s a big development that comes with great challenges and responsibility for us,” said community leader and landowner Pup Kuriti from Kagamuga, within the airport precinct. “We are proud of our new airport.”

The new airport—more efficient due to its modern check-in and screening facilities and eco-friendly features—should spur more travel within PNG generally and to Mount Hagen specifically. Jeremiah Kenken, a community leader also from Kagamugu, said this would definitely benefit car hire companies and sellers of local produce.

The new airport was designed under the $480 million Civil Aviation Development Investment Program led by ADB. As part of the program, the project also built an undercover market area opposite the refurbished airport. Local vendors also held discussions with the project team to visualize what the new market area should best be like. One of them was 30-year-old Selly, who sold peanuts at the old market for 7 years and was enthusiastic about the move into the new complex.

“The old market was many blocks away from the airport and there was no shelter, so too much rain or sun spoiled our produce. I hope the new airport will improve my business so that I can earn lots of money and use the airport myself to travel, which is a dream,” she said.

Reaching out to communities and consulting them on decisions about their local area or workplaces not only boosts their sense of pride and ownership – it invests the same kind of spirit into future generations.

Jessica Jim, a 29-year-old mother of three, is an aviation security officer at the airport. She looks forward to using the new computerized technology to screen bags and passengers, and as the third generation in her family to work for PNG’s National Airports Corporation, she knows what she is talking about. It is the eco-friendly aspects of the building, she said, that make it stand out from other airports in the country.

The new terminal has cavernous skylights to maximize the use of natural light. Energy-saving LED lights are located throughout the terminal building, which also has an independent sewerage treatment system to separate liquid and solid waste. The liquid waste is treated and used to water the grass patches surrounding the runway. This water-saving measure is much needed amid a drought which continues to grip Mount Hagen and many other parts of the country.

The Civil Aviation Development Investment Program will strengthen the safety, accessibility and reliability of air services at 21 national airports in PNG, and the Mount Hagen airport provides a good example of how to incorporate cultural sensitivities and make sure local people are consulted on the needs.

As well as rehabilitating Mount Hagen, the program has already improved Port Moresby’s Jackson’s Airport by constructing a separate parking bay for planes, purchasing state-of-the art fire trucks and upgrading air traffic management systems. The entire program is expected to be completed by 2018.