Pietermaritzburg’s Oribi Airport: Winging, not whingeing, into the future

2010-06-01 00:00

AIRPORTS are key drivers of modern economic development. But they are also, as James Cherry, president and CEO of Aéroports de Montréal, once said, “a reflection of the communities they represent”.

If we accept this analogy, up until recently, Pietermaritzburg’s Oribi Airport has consistently mirrored the sorry state of a community burdened by politically-induced inertia, lack of visionary leadership and limited capital investment.

Fortunately, that’s about to change. This month’s reintroduction of twice-daily Airlink jet flights between Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg heralds the first step in a bold new provincial strategy that will help the local airport shed its current mantle of an underutilised local liability and become a vibrant regional aviation hub.

Driving the initiative is the KwaZulu-Natal Treasury, which is committing monetary resources and skills to the airport’s upgrading and development. A four-month Treasury-funded research process is under way under the co-ordination of KZN Treasury economist Clive Coetzee.

Coetzee said that the airport upgrade is part of a broader objective by provincial government to revitalise the functions of the municipality which owns the airport. “A fully functioning, effective airport will save the province millions of rands,” he said. “Treasury is not doing this to be nice. It makes good business sense.”

The plans are the subject of discussions within the Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute (Midi) Airport Task Team, set up in the wake of last October’s City Summit. According to Midi’s Professor Rob Fincham, the institute and its growing partnerships are keenly aware of the opportunity presented by the airport to “move from whingeing to winging our way into the future”.

He said some task team members believe the airport should be renamed Pietermaritzburg Airport. “This would raise its profile and status, and ensure that the whole country knows whose airport it is.”

Chaired by Coetzee, the task team falls under Midi’s economic and business development banner and is made up of representatives from business, academia, the Msunduzi Municipality and its citizenry. The team acts as a think tank on the subject of the airport and feeds into broader discussions which ensure alignment between individual projects and the city’s overall strategic development plans.

Coetzee said various scenarios for the airport have been considered, including the building of a new airport at a site outside the city, closer to Durban. In the absence of firm plans for an alternative site, however, the Midi task team decided that one of its objectives would be to lobby for the optimal development of the current site at Oribi. This would mean being able to take early advantage of a growing reluctance on the part of many Maritzburgers to undertake the journey to the new King Shaka Airport, north of Durban.

“The extra time it takes to get to the new airport, the stress of travelling, accidents on the busy highway, toll fees and parking costs — all of this plays into the hands of the city,” said Coetzee.

The ultimate vision is a general aviation hub which is complementary to King ­Shaka in KwaZulu-Natal, he said.

“We know the demand is there; now we have to move quickly to ensure supply meets demand by addressing the conditions required to increase the number of people flying,” said Coetzee.

The three major limitations of the current site — the small size of the aircraft, the frequency of aircraft divergence to Durban in adverse weather and the relatively high price of air tickets — are being or have been addressed, said Coetzee.

The return of the larger, more comfortable BAE 146/200, a four-engine jet aircraft with seats for 97 passengers, deals with the first limitation.

According to Oribi Airport manager Hennie Erasmus, the airport’s new Global Satellite Navigation System and the Visual Omi Range/Distance Measuring Equipment let-down procedure is set to reduce the need for diversions to Durban in adverse weather by 90% to 95%. A simple approach-light system and threshold identification lights for runway 16 has also been installed to assist with fly-ins.

Erasmus said that in order to allow larger aircraft to use the airport, the aerodrome licence has to be upgraded from a Cat 4 to Cat 6, which entails securing additional fire crew and a fire tender.

He said the increase in seat capacity and the elimination of diversions could result in a progressive increase of up to 300% in the number of passengers using the airport. Last year, 50 000 passengers on 2 656 commercial flights used the airport, down from 70 400 on 2 945 flights in 2007, a drop which Erasmus attributes to the recession. He said that he is excited by the prospect of the airport becoming a regional player.

The new upgraded EasiPark public parking area, operational this month and offering 119 undercover long-term and 72 short-term parking bays, and a separate car rental operation, will change the perception of the airport as second rate, he said.

On the matter of ticket prices, Coetzee said the new jet has created “room” for price decreases as the aircraft can carry more passengers using the same number of pilots, and is more fuel efficient.

From August, a new passenger airline aimed at the upper end of the market and run by a local businessperson, is to commence flights between Pietermaritzburg and Lanseria. “The routes are already approved,” said Coetzee.

“Efficient aircraft, greater choice of flights and airlines, and the prospect of attracting cargo carriers to the airport should keep prices in check,” he said.

Convenient air travel for passengers is only one piece of the puzzle. Coetzee said the completed picture is a multidimensional airport model incorporating facilities for passenger and cargo transportation in the context of a range of general aviation and auxillary services — a model similar to Lanseria Airport outside Johannesburg.

Coetzee said the Oribi site comprises three portions of municipal land. “We believe one can be opened up to industrial and manufacturing development and the other to office, hotel and retail development,” he said.

“These ideas were talked about in the past, but there was no support from the municipality. To some extent, we are polishing up what has already been done and acting on it,” he said.

And acting they are. Coetzee said discussions are under way to bring to the site the manufacturing operations of a general aviation company which recently launched the world’s first modern general aviation engine running on a range of ­fuels, including environmentally friendly alternatives such as biofuel.

“We’re talking to range of people to gauge their interest in the site. Over the next year or two, we will see some massive changes at the airport,” Coetzee said.

Coetzee said Midi’s role in the project was critical in securing buy-in. “The institute isn’t directly involved in the planning process — that’s not its function. It provides a valuable sounding board for our ideas and opportunities for innovative thinking. By bringing people together for discussions, it also generates buy-in for our plans, lends credibility to our project and helps to spread the word about what we are trying to do,” said Coetzee.

“The bottom line is that the more people use the airport, the more potential there is for it to be something great.”

• To inquire about Midi or to share ideas, contact Rob Fincham or Glenda Colegate at 033 342 2844, or visit www.midi.org.za

This is the first of a series of articles by the Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute (Midi) to keep citizens updated on current debates and plans for the future growth and development ofPietermaritzburg and Msunduzi. We look forward to your responses to this and forthcoming articles. Be a part of the evolution of the city we deserve.

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