Durban International Airport closes today after 59 years, making way for the R8 billion King Shaka International Airport (KSIA) that opens tomorrow. Flight SA 3501, a South African Airways Airbus A340-600, yesterday afternoon at 2pm became the first airliner to touch down at the new airport, some 35km north of the city.
Captain Les Wahl, SAA’s A340-600 fleet captain, said it was a “privilege” to make the inaugural flight. “It’s pretty much run-of-the-mill stuff for us, landing at airports all around the world, but this airport is rather magnificent. Everything is new and everything is working. It was great to bring the first commercial aircraft to this airport.”
SA Civil Aviation Authority director Captain Colin Jordaan then handed over the airport’s operating licence to its general manager, Terence Delomoney.
Airports Company SA (ACSA) says the airport will contribute to the creation of between 165 000 and 260 000 direct and indirect jobs in the next 20 years. The new airport will be able to process 7.5 million passengers and 50 000 tons of manufactured goods per year. The facility was first conceptualised in the 1970s, with construction beginning in 1973. By 1975, earthworks and a storm drainage system had been completed. However, the project was halted in 1982 due to the economic slowdown at the time.
The wikipedia says the project was revived in the late 1990s when “the limitations of Durban International Airport became apparent”. It says the old airport’s 2400m runway was deemed too short to allow large aircraft such as the Boeing 747 to operate intercontinental routes out of Durban; the resulting decrease in international air traffic caused Durban to become marginalised with respect to Johannesburg and Cape Town. Construction resumed resumed August 24, 2007.
Speaking at the airport yesterday, ACSA chief executive officer Monhla Hlahla said the purpose of the flight “was to test our airfield infrastructure, such as instrument landing systems, communication with air traffic control, passenger loading bridges, aircraft fuelling systems, aircraft push back and start-up operations.”
Two South African Air Force Oryx helicopters, a police helicopter and an SAA aircraft will take part in a fly past at the airport before it officially opens for commercial airline activities tomorrow, the South African Press Association reports.
SAA CE Siza Mzimela says the airline would relocate its entire operation from the old Durban International Airport overnight tonight. The relocation has cost R35 million to date, she said. Mzimela says the last SAA flights arriving at Durban International Airport will be flights SA 585, SA 579 and SA 581 from Johannesburg and flight SA 626 from Cape Town. The last SAA flight to leave from the old airport will be SA 582 to Johannesburg.
SAA and ACSA says the first flight from the new airport would be flight SA 528 to Johannesburg at 6.30am. A free airport shuttle is being made available to passengers whose cars would still be parked at the Durban International Airport when they arrived at the new airport. They add the flying time between Johannesburg and Durban will remain unchanged at approximately 50 minutes.
But SAA rival Comair is not so upbeat, the Independent Group newspapers report. Comair has reportedly cancelled plans for a 24-hour service to KSIA during the June World Cup because the staff there have reportedly not been trained to cope with aircraft arriving after 10pm. The airline says it was recently notified that night-time operations at the new airport in Durban will be limited as air traffic controllers have not been fully trained. As a result, Comair airline kulula.com will have to cancel several of its late-night flights into the new Durban airport, the paper says. “Our flight plans were approved months ago and thousands of our customers have already booked for the night flights, which will now have to be cancelled,” said Noel Skinner, the head of airport services for kulula.com. “With just over a month to go to the World Cup we are very concerned about the ability of our airports to deliver and meet the expectations of those hoping to enjoy football matches around the country.”
Heidi Brauer, Comair’s marketing director, said the lack of night landings at King Shaka made plans for a 24-hour service to take the thousands of fans to and from World Cup matches impossible. Pointing out that Comair and other airlines had objected from the start to having to help fund the “unnecessary” new airport, she said: “We are having to pay so much but getting very little from it.”
Rodney James, the managing director of rival low-cost airline 1time, said that its flights to King Shaka airport were all intended to arrive after 6am and before 10pm. “But we would have a problem if one was delayed and needed to land after 10pm. Hopefully, however, everything will run smoothly at the airport after spending R8 billion on it.”
Comair also yesterday said that the runway at George airport, damaged by flooding, had still not been repaired and it has had to divert flights to Port Elizabeth. “Thousands of travellers to George have been affected by the disruptions due to the limited capability of the current runway in wet weather conditions,” said Skinner. “We have received negligible communication on the issue and with more winter weather on the way, the necessary repairs will be further delayed, costing kulula.com millions of rand due to diverted and disrupted flights,” he said.
1time also had been forced to divert planes bound for George to the alternative airport at Port Elizabeth in bad weather. James said 1time had forced the issue and made ACSA agree to resurface the runway after Acsa had argued that it was unnecessary to do so. On December 7 last year, an Airlink plane skidded off the runway during a rainstorm. “Until then Acsa was insisting that resurfacing it was unnecessary while the Civil Aviation Authority said it must be done,” he said.
Acsa had not replied to queries by the time the newspaper went to press.