Toyota and the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) are not commenting on a report in the Business Day that the old Durban International Airport will shortly be leased out to the Japanese car-maker.
The Business Report says the continuing uncertainty about the future of the old airport site has heightened concerns that the city’s general aviation industry could be “left out in the cold” as the lease on Durban’s smaller Virginia airport is also due to expire in 2012.
Toyota spokesman Leo Kok referred queries to ACSA on Thursday. An ACSA spokesman said a number of companies had shown interest in the airport site. However, no agreement had been reached at this stage. This follows unconfirmed reports this week that Acsa had agreed to lease some of the airport land and main terminal buildings to Toyota for the next three-and-a-half years, pending further decisions about the long-term future of the site.
And while there is uncertainty over the site’s future, several concerns have been raised within the aviation industry. Tom Chalmers, editor of the Durban-based World Airnews magazine, queried the wisdom of decommissioning the old airport and noted that several cities in the world had chosen to maintain two airports – one main airport for scheduled flights by large carriers and a subsidiary airport for smaller carriers and charter flights, the business broadsheet said.
Chalmers said it seemed that ACSA was “dead scared” about possible competition from a rival privately operated airport and low-cost airlines. “Durban already has a second airport, so why throw it away? If Acsa does not want it, let someone else have it, but do not destroy it!” Chalmers wrote in a recent editorial. “One suspects that ACSA’s acute fear of competition lies behind all this.
“Is the company scared that if competition is allowed, King Shaka will become the ‘white elephant’ about which so many have warned? “All in all, to demolish a perfectly good airport which is still needed by the aviation industry and, indeed, the public, is a luxury that South Africa cannot afford.”
Chalmers also queried the future of general aviation once the Virginia Airport lease expires in 2012, and about the future search and rescue capability of the SA Air Force 15 Squadron.
He said the SAAF and SAPS Air Wing had both been offered space at the new airport, but it was not clear who would pay the cost of relocating their hangars and other facilities. If no funding was available, it seemed likely that 15 Squadron would be relocated to Bloemfontein, meaning that it would take several hours for the Air Force to mobilise search and rescue operations in the event of shipping accidents in the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, the Sunday Times reported yesterday safety, security and sanitation problems continue to dog Mthatha Airport in the former Transkei. The paper says the Eastern Cape-run airport is used by a commercial airline, private aircraft and dignitaries – including former president Nelson Mandela when he visits his home in Qunu, as he did this weekend for his 92nd birthday yesterday.
The Sunday broadsheet says three inspections – by the South African Civil Aviation Authority and a team of local businessmen – “revealed problems at the dilapidated airfield, which has been earmarked for a multi-million-rand upgrade.” Although a safety certificate was re-issued to the airport in early July after complaints, a task team of local businessmen who inspected the site shortly afterwards said problems remained, in part due to a battle for prominence between the airports in Mthatha and East London.
The inspections, in May and June, found that the airport’s two imported fire engines, bought for R2.5-million in 2006, had mechanical problems and were not adequately manned by firefighters and as a result fire trucks from the local municipality “had to be driven to the airport to ensure adequate safety”; the runway lights were faulty and the perimeter security fence was inadequate.
Roger Foster, CE of SA Airlink, which operates daily flights from Johannesburg to Mthatha, told the paper Saturday he was told of safety problems at the airport about two weeks ago. “I had to intervene, and called (airport) management and the provincial government. But I can assure you the matter was resolved immediately, and the airport was re-issued with the required safety certificate,” he said. In January Airlink briefly suspended flights to Mthatha because navigational beacons had failed. Aviation authorities inspected the airport in May.
SA Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Kabelo Ledwaba confirmed that the inspection raised concerns about the perimeter fence, the state of the runway, secondary power supplies, runway lights and fire and rescue services. He said a follow-up visit on July 7 found that the issues were resolved.
However, local business owners were briefed about the poor state of the airport on July 8. The following day, airport managers and the task team inspected the facility and discovered one of the fire trucks was unable to start and the other could not produce fire-fighting foam. Only six of the 12 firefighters required were available, there was a sewage leak, there were no luggage trolleys and the intercom system was out of order. The VIP lounge was also locked, and its television set had been relocated to a manager’s office.
Mthatha businessman Andile Nontso, who has served on airport task teams since 2007, said the provincial department of transport was well aware of the state of the airport. “The fact that there is only one airline operating in Mthatha has a lot to do with it. We’ve tried … to force Bhisho to inject more money here, but they refuse because they want Mthatha businessmen to use East London airport.”
Another member of the task team, who asked not to be named, said the department was “quick to clean up when they are expecting high-profile visitors”. A spokesman for Gloria Barry, the Eastern Cape’s transport MEC, said the R60-million upgrade for Mthatha Airport, announced in April, had been stalled for “months” due to contractor disputes, the Sunday Times added.