Alternatives to a new Runway at Cape Town International

There has been much in the press, recently, about ACSA going ahead and building a new runway at Cape Town International and the project commencing soon.

There are a few things that are desperately needed in the Cape Town area:

The most important is the increase in flight capacity. At present, only Cape Town International can handle heavy and medium-sized (ICAO Definition) commercial jets. Ysterplaat is not an option for many reasons and the only other suitable airport that could be expanded is Somersveld (FALS), a military airfield Somersveld was constructed to serve as an alternative to training specifically the Circuits & Landings, close to Darling and ideally suited for the growing areas to the north of the metropole. It would have to be purchased from the Department of Defence and will also require a significant capital injection to construct the necessary support facilities. But it has the potential to be the “Lanseria” of Cape Town. A further plus of this airfield is the N7 is becoming dual carriageway all the way to the Hopefield turn-off, making for ease of road transport from the northern (and expanding) suburbs of Cape Town.

Somersveld Military Airfield

A real and very urgent need to increase the size of the terminal at Cape Town International. It has become woefully too small and crowded – as will be attested to by anyone using the international arrivals hall at 11 am, or the check-in counters on any late afternoon.

At present, Cape Town has two runways. One is more than capable of handling just about any commercial jet there is – including the likes of the A380. Whilst none have landed here, the airport has handled several Antonov A124s, albeit on charters.

Of the airlines currently serving Cape Town, only Emirates and, possibly, British Airways are likely to be interested in operating A380s into Cape Town. Lufthansa may be as well, but I have not seen anything to indicate they would like to fly their A380/B747-8 here. Beyond them, I would think it safe to state that there is not really a big demand for such capacity for such large aircraft. There would be a problem with some of the taxiways getting to and from the apron, but that can be managed. A more realistic likelihood is an increase in operations using large twin ultra-long-haul types, ie. Boeing 777-X, Boeing 787-100 and Airbus A350-1000.

The second much shorter runway has been a lifeline and a rescuer of many flights and aircraft over the years when the main, longer, runway became unavailable. This was often at short notice and without that other runway, there would have been chaos. Aircraft would have to divert all over the place, dependent on their size and weather. Passengers would be at wrong airports, the crew could go out of duty time and all sorts of other associated problems would arise.

Regular operators, during the winter months, with significant cold frontal activity, have found this runway to be particularly useful for landings, due to crosswind limitations on the main runway. So the second runway performs a vital and often much-needed function. Unfortunately, there are many people who do not see the need for this runway. Having been an air traffic controller at FACT for many years, it is one of the best aids to an aerodrome controller we have at Cape Town. Extremely useful, and very much a major role player at the airport.

With the advent of a new runway, there would be no shorter runway, as it would be dug up, to allow for the building of the new runway. Let us take a case where an aircraft lands and blocks the runway, the closest place many aircraft could use, would be George, some 400 odd kilometres away by road. Not feasible to bus the people back to Cape Town. Under certain circumstances, it would be possible to use Langebaan and or Overberg but there are very limited ground facilities there to handle commercial jets. Bear in mind, CAA says these airfields may only be used in emergencies.

Hence I believe we need to keep both runways. The new development has plans for parallel runways, but the second one is so far away it has not even been thought of; let alone budgeted for.

Assuming the new runway was to be commenced with building tomorrow, costs puts it at about R5bn (Source Argus April 2018). Let’s be both honest and realistic, that price is going to end a lot more than that, when it is finished.

Assuming too, that the decision is made to go ahead with the project, it must go to tender and then still be built. And it will never be finished by the target date – when do big projects ever do that? Let us not forget the new airport at Berlin – still not open 5 years after it was “completed”. So the earliest that new runway will commence with building operations is, say, realistically, Jan 2020, and then give it 2 years to finish. That also assumes there are no objections to the tender process and awarding of the tender - something ACSA has not been immune to. That means from Jan 2020, the greater Cape Town area will only have one suitable runway, for commercial jets to land on. Can you call that a healthy, safe and logical commercial decision?

Once a date has been set to commence the building of the new runway, the necessary compliance with ICAO/CAA legislation is required. This requires all the necessary agencies, airlines, operators are sufficiently and correctly informed – a process which will take months to complete.

Allied to the new runway, there will need to be a redesign of the airspace, let downs and routes into and from Cape Town. Very few, in fact any, of the present published let-downs and published routings will be able to be used. That is a huge project and it will take at least 24 months to sort out, assuming the present ATNS management have started to do something about it. It will be too much for them to handle and they will require outside help. A look in the AIP to see how many let-downs and approaches, departures, radar maps etc. are published for Cape Town – you would not be able to amend the present ones, as it will be a new runway, so the CAA/ATNS will all have to redo them from scratch. Many of the arrivals and departures routings will need to be flight tested, in good weather, prior to them being signed off and approved. Airline, operating agencies and aircraft all need their software to be updated.

Bearing in mind that the new runway will be aligned in a south-east/north-west direction, the high terrain to the south-east the Koggelberg Mountains could well impact on the design of arrival routes and instrument let-down procedures, for aircraft approaching from the south. It could mean an instrument approach (ILS) with a glideslope of higher than 3 degrees. Modern aircraft are designed for slopes with less than 3degrees.(The ICAO recommendation) Many airports, including Cape Town, have the option of RNAV arrivals using modern satellite and GPS technology, but not all aircraft flying into Cape Town are equipped, at present, to do these approaches and departures. And many pilots are also not licensed to fly them.

Another plus factor in the development of Somersveld is that it is far enough away from Cape Town International, to allow for development of arrival and departure routes, as well as let-downs that would not impact on the present ones for Cape Town. It would be a popular airport for corporate aircraft arriving from the North – where most long-haul corporate aircraft originate from /depart to – that being North America and Europe. They would avoid the melee of Cape Town International Airport and the associated present road congestion around it. This would also be dependent on the Government giving it International status. Should the SAAF not be willing to give up Somersveld, an option would be to allow joint management of it and allow the SAAF to provide an AT control service.

I would like to propose the following changes:

At present, as can be seen from the attached airfield layout, we have the two runways. It is proposed to build the new runway to the east of the present main runway, in a Northwest/south-east direction, cutting through the shorter secondary runway

Take the smaller runway and extend it by 1500ft. This would mean a runway of 7000ft, more than enough for light and medium jets to depart from. That runway would then be designated for departures and the main, longer runway would be used for arrivals.

There are some heavy jets would be able to depart from a 7000ft runway, if not too heavy, or performance limited, but for those that cannot use it, a gap can be found for them to depart amongst the arrivals. There are no more than about 15 long haul widebody departures, currently, daily that would need the 3km runway to depart from. So relatively easy to accommodate. Vast tracks of land to the east of the airfield belong to other Government departments and a process could be followed to take this land over, to allow for the extension.

The benefits of this are:

  • At present, the declared capacity of the airfield is 30 mixed movements an hour ( Having one new runway it will not change a lot. With the advent of rapid exit turn-offs, it might be possible to increase this to about 40 off an hour. With the using of two runways, as I have proposed, you could get 30 departures an hour on the one runway and at the same time, 30 arrivals an hour on the other runway – an effective 100% increase over present capacity, with only extending a runway by 1500ft. That is quite a cost-saving from building an entirely new runway.

  • Should the new single runway become unserviceable, you have no runways available, which translate into no movements. At least, with my proposal, you will still have another runway available and a plan can be made to handle most flights. Most medium and light jets will easily be able to land on a 7000ft runway. In fact, some heavies could as well. I have seen a Boeing 747-400 and an Airbus A340-300 land on the present runway 34! That would cut down on diversions, delays, aircraft, not at their correct destinations, crews running out of duty times, and all the other associated problems – an airline manager’s worst nightmare!

  • The present let downs, standard arrivals, standard departures, etc. would stay in place and could still be used. The only thing that would require new procedures for would-be for departures from runway 16 and 34 – in fact there are some in place already for 34. That would save ATNS and CAA a lot of time and effort and speed up the new plates and procedures.

By taking over the Air Force apron, it would allow for remote parking of jets and either shuttle the people to the present terminal by a rail system, or even better, develop the Air Force apron and designate it for an alliance organisation, or low costs carriers. I am sure Comair and FlySafair would love to have their own apron and terminal facilities in Cape Town. Afford them the option of buying and developing the land – what a massive saving for ACSA and also the airlines, in the long run. Follow a system as the Americans have at J F Kennedy, New York – own terminals for own airlines/Alliances. Leave the present building to Star Alliance and those airlines that don’t have any Alliances, as well as for international scheduled movements. That would free up space in the present building to allow for expansion of the international side, which is sorely needed

The present vacant land north of Apron A and SAA cargo could be expanded and many multiple-use bays could be accommodated there, with minimum capital outlay ( these bays could accommodate one A380 type aircraft, or two medium-sized jets, accordingly)

I have seen the airport expand and change in many ways. One thing that did not change was the need for two runways. Cape Town cannot rely on one of a pair of parallel runways and wait for many years to build the second one. Ideally, they should be built at the same time. But realistically, is this financially feasible? We all thought that King Shaka was unaffordable, but ACSA hiked up charges at Cape Town and Johannesburg, which was an effective way of subsidising King Shaka Airport. Who is to say that ACSA would not do something like that again to finance the further expansion? One also needs to bear in mind that ACSA also needs to expand, or build a new terminal at OR Tambo airport. That will also be a massive capital project. Does ACSA have finance available for these two projects? I very much doubt, given the political and economic situation, that ACSA will be able to finance both projects. So consideration will have to be given to which one has a greater priority – Cape Town or Johannesburg? Recent allegations about tender and financing allegations, I’m sure will impact on the ability of ACSA to raise finance for this project (Daily Maverick 25Oct18 - Emails reveal the seduction of Phetolo Ramosebudi, ACSA, SAA and Transnet treasury boss.)

Finally, another thing to take into consideration is that the present airport is sadly lacking any sort of mass transport system to town, or to the east or north. To enable the expansion to be a success and handle to proposed increase in passenger numbers, this needs to be addressed, by both ACSA and the City of Cape Town. This needs to be undertaken at the same time as the expansion of the terminal facilities

I don’t claim to be an engineer or an accountant, but I worked at Cape Town, as an aerodrome and approach ATC for 36 years, spend many hours working traffic into and out of the airfield, and one thing ATC taught me was to think out of the box. I remember the days when we used to sit and discuss how we could increase air traffic movements into and around Cape Town and this was always the most logical option. I remember many days when the “smaller runway” saved us. Don’t under-estimate its importance.

And should Somersveld become available and be developed, the potential to attract extra flights and business, to the Western Cape, could be massive. Just what the economy sorely needs now. Just think of the employment opportunities for the people living in Atlantis.