Sunday, 18 July 2010

In defence of King Shaka

Much has been said about the new centre of air traffic in KwaZulu-Natal, King Shaka International Airport (KSIA). Most of it negative. Yes, it cost R7-billion. Yes, it needs to be paid for. Yes, it's further away from Durban and on the other coast nogal. Yes, the old airport wasn't running at full passenger capacity. And yes, you've got to get through a bloody R4 toll.

Well, swallow your anger, folks. Government, often accused of an inherent lack of forward thinking - like that shining light of achievement in utterly damp failure, Eskom - has responded to predicted KZN growth in tourism and cargo. ACSA projections claim that Durban International Airport (DIA) would have maximised its potential in the next few years, and it was much cheaper to build KSIA now than wait until that point.

Airports cost money. Building this one was unavoidable. You, yes you, the taxpayer, were going to have to pay for it anyway. ACSA tariffs are going to go up, but not to the degree that some would have you believe - I crunched some numbers and estimate the increase to be about 6%-7% on a R900-R1000 ticket.

While DIA may not have run at top passenger capacity, it is easy to forget that Durban is Africa's biggest and busiest port, and that two-thirds of all ship containers enter South Africa through it, much of which is then transported by plane.

Not only does King Shaka International increase Durban's capacity to move cargo, it also incorporates state-of-the-art equipment and will be able to move more types of goods across more industries. A lot of cargo has to go through Johannesburg - taking a day longer as it's done by truck - because of limited facilities at DIA. This new airport is set up to get around that and will hopefully spare all of us who use the N3 between Joburg and Durban that truck-related grief we've grown so accustomed to.

Along with cargo trade, tourism is also on the increase in this, the double-summered city. It currently makes up 10% of the GDP of the province itself. Also, in October 2009, Emirates began direct flights from Dubai to Durban - the only major international airline to operate international (not regional) flights to the city without going through Johannesburg or Cape Town. DIA's runway was too short for a fully-laden Boeing 747 to take off, which also means landing the new Airbus A380 (which forms part of the Emirates fleet) was impossible. KSIA's new runway takes care of that problem. An international airline direct to Durban, creating easy travel, is a great asset for tourism and the new airport should encourage more of this.

Take a look at this statistical comparitive of the two airports

Runway length: 2.4km 3.7km
Aircraft parking bays: 23 34
Air bridges: Zero 16
Annual passenger capacity: 4.4 million 7.5 million
Check-in counters: 52 72
Passenger terminal floor area: 30 000 sqm 102000 sqm
Retail space: 2 900sqm 6 500sqm
Retail outlets: 23 52
Public parking bays: 2490 6500

The airport location was decided under the previous government back in the 70s and it is not as though one can just build an airport anywhere. After all a 3.7 kilometre runway and 102 000 square meter terminal need quite a lot of room. Forty kilometres from the city centre to the airport is not an unfairly long way if travelling by car and folks living on the north coast have been driving that far to the airport since its inception. Guess what? They are all still ok.

Keep in mind that the airport's position is not only important for locals departing, but also visitors arriving. Umhlanga, Durban's money-making tourist centre is closer to the new airport than the old one. The drive is the same as from the northern suburbs of Johannesburg to OR Tambo International and 10km closer than people from Pretoria have to drive.

And if you are really put off by the R4 toll you have to pay, there is an alternative route up the R102. If you still feel bad about an extra toll, just compare your situation to the massively-increased idea about to be deployed in Joburg. It'll cheer you right up.

So next time you fly to Durban and land at King Shaka International Airport, appreciate the good that will come of it.

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