September 2021 – A FEW MONTHS AGO I wrote about how there is an enduring perception in Africa that general aviation (GA) is the plaything of rich whites, and in terms of places, Plettenberg Bay is the epitome of the playground for rich whites. Despite being a sleepy coastal holiday resort, it supports regular airline flights, thanks to profitable private sector airlines like CemAir, which provide essential air connectivity to smaller towns.
The value of this air connectivity cannot be overstated, yet it is seldom appreciated by the bureaucrats who run these local authorities. An excellent case study is down the road at George Airport, where the entire region has enjoyed phenomenal growth thanks to the low-cost carriers connecting George to Gauteng.
But in South Africa, most local authorities just don’t get the importance of air connectivity. So we continue to lose airports to administrative neglect and incompetence.
‘AIRPORTS NEED TO BE PROTECTED FROM LOCAL GOVERNMENT’
The CAA has downgraded Plettenberg Bay airport from a Grade 4 to a Grade 2, so CemAir can no longer fly there. And in Pretoria, Wonderboom is once again struggling under the yoke of incompetence, cronyism and empty promises as its bloated costs swell to three times its total revenue.
I cannot understand why our government is unable to operate airports, as they are a cosy monopoly. How useless must you be to lose money in a monopolistic business?
Plettenberg Bay Airport lost its Grade 4 licence for small compliance standards that even half-competent management could solve: keep a record of runway inspections, have the right sized fire extinguishers, keep the alternate access road driveable. Easy stuff. Yet the Bitou Town Council blames CemAir – which is the largest victim of their incompetence.
And typically, in an echo of the Wonderboom debacle – the all-important fuel supply has failed. Unfortunately the under-investment by the local authority has meant that BP owns the tanks and pumps and a dispute with the current fuel supplier has meant that the airport has experienced ‘dry-outs’. This discouraged airline operators and general aviation from using the airport – and further limits investment in the town.
The point the politicians just don’t seem to get is that small planes bring investors. A business may want to invest millions in opening a new branch – but if the CEO can’t fly there to check it out, it won’t happen.
Small towns require airports that work. And these airports need aircraft operators and pilots, who need training. The aircraft require maintenance, which needs AMOs with skilled people.
The point is that GA is not the spoiled stepchild of the airlines and military. It constitutes a significant part of the economy and is a key component of transport infrastructure, without which many other parts will be constrained – or just not be possible.
GA is skills and capital intensive – yet both skills and capital are notoriously fickle and transportable. GA needs government care and protection, yet airports are all too often left to incompetent officials with self-serving political agendas. This has a multiplier effect of damage to the economy.