Where we find ourselves
In stark contrast to the demise of many South African airports lost to municipal neglect, the Plettenberg Bay airport ends the year in a stable position. For the first time in many years, we are well placed to take advantage of the anticipated economic growth of the Garden Route, brought on by the lockdown-induced semigration and work from home trends.
Years of neglect and non-compliance of long standing deficiencies, warned of over several years, eventually took its toll with the SACAA downgrading the airport and the suspension of commercial operations in August. This prompted all interested parties to get around a table to discuss the various issues and find a way forward. To the credit of both Cemair and the Bitou municipality, a deal was signed in September and work started immediately to address a number of critical areas.
In an incredibly short period of time, the Cemair team worked miracles to upgrade the airport. It needed significantly more resource and investment than originally anticipated. After weeks of addressing basic administrative and reporting requirements, upgrading fire and rescue equipment, intensive training of fire department staff, correcting runway marking and clearing approximately 10 hectares of alien vegetation, the SACAA gave the all clear and reinstated commercial status. In addition, Cemair struck a deal with BP and took over the responsibility of fuel supply. This has already resulted in an increase in leisure and business traffic to the airport.
Cemair resumed commercial operations on November 12 after investing close to R1m. Although the intent is to recoup much of this upfront cost through the reduction of future landing fees, ongoing maintenance at the airport will demand continued effort and investment.
How We Started The Year
2021 started with the airport in disarray. There was no fuel and the municipality only saw the airport as a cost drain and a low priority asset. Investment was lacking and maintenance was minimal.
During the first quarter, VRST, an airport management company, was given the right to supply fuel and for a short period the general aviation community benefited from both Avgas and Jet fuel availability. However, due to their inability to build constructive contractual relationships with BP, Cemair and Bitou, fuel supply was again stopped by BP who locked their equipment in July thereby effectively ending their agreement with VRST.
Although regular meetings with the newly appointed municipal airport team were constructive, follow-up and execution of the basics as identified in the SACAA reports, did not take place. The writing was on the wall.
The new council is in place and our new Mayor, Dave Swart, has been vocal on the importance of the airport for both local and regional growth.
Much however, still needs to be done
Cemair, true to form, have offered to take responsibility for conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which will enable further development of the airport. This will include the construction of additional hangars as well as a much needed upgrade of the terminal building. Significant demand exists for hangarage across current Plettenberg Bay pilots as well as those aviation families planning on relocating to Plett. The waiting list for hangarage currently stands at 40 planes and is growing all the time. This will bring additional revenue to the airport through fuel sales, rates and landing fees.
Lease agreements with current hangar owners need to be negotiated with the municipality. This will give security of tenure to the hangar owners as well as impose tighter standards of maintenance and safety. Airport security, especially for the general aviation area, needs to be tightened and improvements to taxiways and supply of power to the hangars will all lead to better and safer operations.
The previous Council was committed to a tender process of outsourcing the airport to an external management company or a private, public partnership (PPP). This could potentially have an adverse impact on local aviation through a short term profit motive and excessive costs. The new council will hopefully review this direction and evaluate the longer term economic growth benefits that emanate from the airport remaining a municipal asset and service to the community.
2022 is setting up to be an exciting year for the airport which, like George airport, will undoubtedly help realize the substantial growth opportunities that lie ahead for both town and region. Importantly, we can also become a shining example to other municipalities in South Africa of the importance of local airports as key transport infrastructure assets.