Sunday Times E-Edition

Plett’s ‘crumbling’ airport up for grabs

Investors circle tender to make Garden Route town an aviation hub


● It’s the airport that just won’t take off. But now a new plan to turn Plettenberg Bay into a regional aviation hub has got some heavyweight businessmen circling the crumbling runway of the Garden Route town.

The Bitou council is evaluating five bids of up to R224m to redevelop the airport known for its scenic approach. But while the view may be spectacular, the same cannot be said of the airport’s facilities, including the rundown runway, apron and terminal building, which have for years been mired in local government inertia.

Previous development plans have come to naught, despite overtures from investors and upgrade requests from local pilots, among them businessmen.

The list of hangar owners and pilots linked to the airport over the years includes Airlink CEO Rodger Foster, Ekapa Mining CEO Jahn Hohne and the Cadbury family of Cadbury’s chocolate fame. In the absence of adequate municipal maintenance, the airport has been maintained largely by private pilots and one remaining commercial operator — CemAir. Airlink stopped its regular service in 2004.

But the municipality’s airport development tender, issued this year, is the most promising to date. It proposes the airport be run independently of the municipality, allowing the operator more freedom. The tender document suggests the airport could potentially welcome 150,000 passengers a year by 2050 — more than quadruple the figure now. The increase in traffic is driven partly by tourism and partly by “semigration” to the Garden Route, which has seen huge growth over the past 20 years.

“Bitou municipality has identified some gaps in Airports Company South Africa’s catchments, where a few local airports add valuable socioeconomic benefits to local communities to support the tourism industry and sustain local jobs,” said the tender summary.

But to achieve its target, Bitou would need an investor with deep pockets to upgrade the airport to the level required by commercial licence conditions.

Two aviation bosses this week confirmed their potential interest, but expressed reservations.

CemAir CEO Miles van der Molen said his company had effectively kept the airport up and running for years, incurring significant costs for maintenance and basic training, including fire services. CemAir, accounting for about 75% of traffic into the airport, has tried unsuccessfully to broker a deal with the municipality to leverage its on-site experience and upgrade the facility.

“When we commenced, the building was an empty shell and required maintenance,” Van der Molen said.

He said Bitou’s air traffic projections appeared optimistic, and the municipality risked ending up with a white elephant should the operation prove to be unsustainable. The 30-year lease term was also not conducive to the huge investment needed to upgrade the runway for more commercial air traffic.

“The pipe dream of somebody coming in with enormous money and building a lovely airport — is it economically realistic? If it is so great, then why hasn’t it been done yet?” he asked.

Airlink’s Foster said: “Plett is a popular destination and attracts many high net worth travellers. Airlink is definitely interested in resuming services … and would do so in a heartbeat. But it would require improvements to the runway, enhancements to the airport terminal facilities to handle aircraft from more than one airline, and upgrades to the fire and rescue capability, without which aircraft such as the ones Airlink flies are unable to operate there.”

Steve Pattinson, chairperson of both the Plett Hangar Owners Association and Plettenberg Bay Ratepayers Association, said local pilots hoped for meaningful investment. “The hangar owners and pilots have all made significant contributions over the past 12 months. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to maintain the roads and fix access gates.”

In addition to CemAir, the list of bidders includes the operators of the Winelands and Richards Bay airports.

Bitou did not respond to queries. However, the tender document said: “Various initiatives have been launched between 2004 and 2018 to revitalise the airport, but most have been unsuccessful, mainly because they did not provide for the effective transfer of operational and developmental risk to a new investor, and attempted to retain the airport as a municipal service run by outsourced contractors. An inherently inappropriate institutional model has thus never been replaced.” This problem was resolved last year with the passing of a council resoluBy

The pipe dream of somebody coming in with enormous money and building a lovely airport — is it economically realistic? Why hasn’t it been done yet? CemAir CEO Miles van der Molen, right

tion. The project could create about 2,000 jobs, the document said.

The airport has prompted some highoctane legal standoffs over the years, notably when the Plett Hangar Owners Association took legal action to prevent a proposed 500% increase in aircraft parking fees.

Private pilots were temporarily grounded when Air BP cancelled its fuel supply contract. CemAir took over the fuel supply contract and ensured availability of Avgas and Jet A-1. Avgas is no longer available at Plett.

At one stage, the municipality had to intervene when the airport’s windsocks no longer met required transport specifications.

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