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Does Cape Town Need Two Airports?

By Rob Russell

The case for two airports – yes or no?

Earlier last month, ACSA, announced it is going to spend billions upgrading Cape Town Airport, along with a few other of their airfields. This on-off, once again on project, has received a degree of urgency, with the announcement of the Cape Winelands Airport board of their intention to go ahead with its airport, scheduled to open in 2027.

There has been much debate on whether there is a need for another airport, capable of handling scheduled flights, domestically and internationally, for the growing cargo market, as well as the flourishing general aviation community.

The jury is undecided on whether it should be up the West Coast, as there is no doubt that that is a major growth area. There is a somewhat run-down and dilapidated runway at Sommersveld, near Hopefield, owned and not well maintained by the SAAF, it could be perfect for redevelopment and new management. Then there is Fisantekraal. Other than these two sites, there is no other suitable land available in the greater Cape Town area. It seems that no one is interested in a potential development, in the Sommersveld area.

Fisantekraal Airfield is a historical landmark originally constructed around 1943 as an operational base for the South African Air Force, where Lockheed Ventura bombers were once stationed. Since the end of the war, it has had a chequered career, with a variety of owners, some of ill repute. It has never managed to grow to the heights of the other general aviation airports near Cape Town, namely Morningstar and Stellenbosch. The few flight schools who make the airfield home maintain their rented premises themselves, but the common property is in serious need of maintenance. It is quite sad that this picturesque airfield with such history should be allowed to fall into such a state.

As it stands, Cape Town International is fast coming to its sell-by date. Limited space is posing a huge problem for developing and expanding the airfield, as well as it being right in the middle of a high crime area – ACSA will vehemently deny that – but how many pilots, airline staff and passengers have been held up and attacked on access roads? Furthermore, the N2 is a nightmare to travel on during rush hour traffic and also late at night, or early mornings, with so many stonings, they no longer make the news. Let’s not beat around the bush, but that is the reality.

The upgrade at Cape Town is an ambitious project, designed to happen in two phases.

The first phase will entail the enhancement of the airport's domestic arrivals terminal to meet the growing capacity needs. It will expand the meet and greet area, baggage claim area, domestic departures lounge, retail spaces, and ablution facilities. The airport will also receive an additional baggage carousel, three new contact gates, and fixed boarding bridges. This can only be good news to both passengers and meeters and greeters, as the present layout is far from ideal and in urgent need of a proper upgrade. And badly needed, if they are not going to lose customers to another potential airport.

The second phase will entail replacing two runways with one runway. ASCA seems to have decided it is not worth having two runways at Cape Town and is going to build a completely new runway to the east of the present main runway. The excuse is that is the first of a set of parallel runways. Dream on, with the Tygerberg and the mountains to the southeast clearly, going to be in the way of the proposed second parallel runway. Whilst the new runway will have rapid exit turnoffs and be designed to handle projected traffic growth, the surrounding terrain is going to pose significant problems for instrument approaches and departures. The Koggelberg mountain will have an impact on an ILS procedure for the north landing runway. They will have to acquire large tracts of land and that will take years, if not decades to complete that project.

It’s a massive project, which will involve not only ACSA but the CAA and ATNS – they will have to move, realign and replace all the present SIDs and STARs, as well as all the instrument letdowns, as all the GPS/GNSS procedures. As is common knowledge ATNS are struggling to maintain the currency of the present Nav systems, so it's going to be interesting to see how they manage this project. Local communities will also have to be involved in this project, as it will also entail moving informal living areas around the airport. The SAAF too, will be affected, as the new runway will mean many flights passing overhead Ysterplaat. Luckily, thanks to the Government, which has managed to destroy the SAAF, Ysterplaat is not too busy and won't be significantly affected and it should not impact operations onto a new runway, but it needs to be carefully considered.

ACSA had been relying on the regulatory body and Dept of Transport to approve its 17,5% tariff fee hike, much of this money being needed to fund their upgrade projects. However, the regulator only approved an increase of between 4,5 and 10% over the next five years. A huge setback for ACSA, much to the relief of the industry and paying passengers. And a bonus for any other airport development.

Reducing from two runways to one runway, apart from being illogical, makes no sense at all – how many times has ACSA gotten out of jail when the main runway has become blocked and able to use the other runway? Too often to list.

And the talk of a mass rapid transport rail line to the airport seems to be no longer. It's been kicked down the road so often, pardon the pun, that it is doubtful it will ever happen. This is vital for future growth, as travelling on the N2 to and from the airport is either shambolic at peak times or dangerous at night.

And then came Winelands.

Late in 2023, the RSA Aero board unveiled their ambitious plans for the development of Fisantekraal airport and renaming it Cape Winelands. Since the unveiling, the Management has been on an aggressive marketing plan, taking the plan to the local communities, local Government, as well as big business, both in South Africa and around the world. The board has appointed some very well-known aviation personalities to help them get the project up and running. They have signed agreements with NACO, a leading Dutch aviation consulting business, to assist them in the design of both the airport and the airspace around the airport. Negotiations are ongoing with several major airlines as well, one of which is a major European airline who have signalled their intention to use Winelands, as a diversion airport for Cape Town, when it opens.

Set to open in 2027 for domestic and international flights, the expanded Cape Winelands Airport on the outskirts of Durbanville will dramatically change the landscape of the Cape Winelands. With a R7 billion investment in the area, the current airport facilities will be entirely upgraded to be classified as a Code F airport– ie capable of handling any commercial jet up to the A380 type jets.

The project has the blessing and support of the local Government, who see it as a means of providing much-needed economic growth, to the area, as well as potentially offering employment to many people – and that is so needed in the Western Cape. The board has also indicated they have the support from both airline associations, namely BARSA and AASA, with whom ongoing discussions are continuing.

Air traffic figures are projected at 1,7 million passengers per annum on the day it opens, growing to 2 million by 2030, 3,8 million by 2040, and 5,2 million in 2050, it plans to capture 25% of the total market of Cape Town International Airport (CTIA).

The expansion programme includes a realigned 3,5 km runway with all associated airside infrastructure, a terminal building, cargo facilities and fuel-storage amenities, and future commercial developments planned will include offices and hotels.

Subject to all Environmental Assessment projects being approved and regional, town and sub-plannings being granted and approved, the ambitious build will start in 2025. RSA Aero has embarked on a plan to develop a modern green environmentally friendly airport, using the latest digital technology to assist in achieving this plan. It has put into place an aggressive marketing campaign and taken its plans to the local communities and the broader aviation and general communities.

Impressive drawings have been produced and they have certainly impressed all those who have seen them. However one must remember those pictures are the completed project and the airport, if and when it opens in 2027, will not look anything like the end project – as is the case with all new airports.

It's an ambitious plan to have an airport, approved, built and licensed and operating within the next 36 odd months., even by international standards, but it seems RSA Aero is determined to get it done. They have been hard at work already, to complete the first and most important phase - a successful Environmental Assessment Plan. Plans are in place to develop a modern digital ATC unit, through a subsidiary Company within the group. Whether all the ATS procedures are successfully designed, approved and in place is another massive project, which will challenge even the most determined when one hears of the stories of dealing with the CAA (and ATNS.)

RSA Aero have announced their intentions to attract airlines to their airport, from day one. Having local airlines move from Cape Town to Winelands is going to be interesting to see as well. Winelands are going to have to do a lot of PR work and make it very enticing for them to move. With road access, and indeed mass transport, to Cape Town International becoming a bigger problem, with no solutions in sight, Winelands are going to have to be careful that the proper mass transport infrastructure is well developed to ensure ease of access to their airport and encourage passengers to use their airport.

The costs are going to be enormous and does it make sense for an airline management to have to operate into two airfields, only a few kilometers apart? Duplicating ground support systems, both in the terminal and on the apron, as well as having to increase ground support equipment and personnel is something the airlines will have to think carefully about. Does it make sense for airlines to move to an airport that never handled any scheduled flights? It’s a huge risk and it's going to need careful planning if it does happen from all the parties involved.

Should Winelands be attracting airlines from the opening day? An interesting debate. What market should they be aiming for?

Should they rather not seek to establish a good airport for Corporate and General aviation first and then expand into the tough world of scheduled operations? With ACSA reducing the runway availability at Cape Town, this can only mean good news for Winelands though. It's going to be harder to operate into and out of Cape Town and with slot restrictions there, this can only serve Winelands well. ACSA makes no secret that they do not like Corporate and general aviation at Cape Town – ask any big Corporate jet operator how difficult and expensive it is to operate in and out of Cape Town, having to park at the Apron before and after international flights and then have the hassle of getting your jet to/from the FBO. Corporate passengers like the discretion and suitability of going straight to and from their jets and avoiding the masses in the terminals – something that does not happen with international corporate jets at present, and indeed, in the future too. Winelands should be learning from this and providing world-class service to corporate jets, who can go directly to and from their FBOs without having to get to the apron and clear customs and immigration in the terminals. Get that right and in place and they will attract the airlines to their airport.

Of course, for this to be achieved Winelands need to get approval for a Port of Entry and be a designated airport for international flights. It remains to be seen if this will happen – it could be difficult to convince the various Government departments to approve this and then provide all the necessary services. They can’t even do it properly, all the time at Cape Town – how they will do it at two airports so close together remains to be seen. Winelands is aggressively marketing itself as a viable alternate/diversion airfield for Cape Town. But that needs international status, or they can forget about attracting international flights either landing there or nominating it as a diversion airfield. Likewise, without it, they will not attract the (commercially lucrative for Winelands) international corporate aircraft, more and more of which are coming with their wealthy passengers to the Western Cape. It's reassuring to know that they have given this a high priority and are working hard to achieve it.

Winelands cannot afford a duplication of the present system around Johannesburg, where corporate aircraft have to arrive at either OR Tambo or Lanseria, clear customs and then ferry to their intended airport of destination. And, likewise, the reversal happening on departure – a ridiculous process, created by Government inefficiency. No operator is going to fly their large jet from around the world, clear customs at Cape Town and then ferry across to another airport just 5 minutes away. Rather leave it at Cape Town, so international status is vital and imperative, from day one, for Winelands.

Many corporate operator passengers want to visit and stay in the Waterfront area and many large overseas Companies are based in the Waterfront area. Winelands need to take this into account and ensure there is very good road transport (or some form of rapid and mass transport system) in place to this area from the airport, otherwise, the larger overseas operators won’t look at it. Who wants to fly from Europe and then spend two hours getting to the Waterfront, in the chaotic Cape Town morning traffic? Of course, you could fly by helicopter, but then that entails flying through the Cape Town CTR and speaking to any helicopter pilot as to how difficult that can be nowadays. The only viable option would be to route north and around the Cape Town CTR.

And then don’t forget Fisantekraal has a secret bonus – a major railway line 1km from the airfield, linked to the main line to the Witwatersrand, as well as Saldanha harbour. That is perfect for the rapid movement of cargo from these areas to and from the airfield and off to destinations around the world. The development of the airfield into a cargo hub also has huge potential, as there is no space for such a development at Cape Town International.

Should Winelands be attracting the general aviation community, from Cape Town International to their airport? Ideally yes, but that is unlikely. Many of these pilots have seen how difficult it is for them to operate from Cape Town, so they don’t want to move from one airport to a new one and face all those challenges again. The Cape area already has two thriving general aviation airports – Stellenbosch and Morningstar – the latter recently getting their lease agreement with the City finalised and sorted out, so expansion plans can finally happen there, so Winelands is going to have to make it really attractive for private pilots and flying training institutions to move there, but do they want/need them there? Getting them to move from Stellenbosch and Morningstar, where flying is relatively easy and hassle-free to a potentially busy airport like WInelands is not going to be an easy task.

At present most general aviation flights going around the Peninsula and off to the east to and from Stellenbosch, the Paarl Valley and the Hermanus area and upwards, avoid the Cape Town CTR and fly around it, presently flying over the Fisantekraal area. But that won't be possible when Winelands opens. There will be controlled airspace, along with its hassles and pilots are going to have to vastly increase their routes if they don’t want to enter the Winelands airspace. Not only will it make it harder to fly around for them and add to their flying times, but Winelands will no doubt bill them for overflight fees if they enter their airspace. One hopes that Winelands ATS management has thought about this and takes a positive and proactive attitude to attract general aviation aircraft and encourage them to fly there. Winelands also needs to take into account that the present Stellenbosch Flying Training area is near their airport. Aircraft to and from Stellenbosch use this airspace, as well as some clubs from Cape Town, so they will have to cater for these light aircraft transiting their airspace. Any plans to affect this, I am sure will be vehemently opposed.

The bigger headache for Winelands' management is how to get controlled flights into and out of their airport. The airspace around Cape Town is pretty complicated and restrictive, thanks to all the mountains to the east. It's already a challenge for Cape Town ATC to get aircraft into and out of Cape Town, because of these mountains. This makes for some interesting arrivals and departures to the east. How ATNS is going to incorporate arrival and departure routes for Winelands into the present ones for Cape Town is going to be interesting. As an ex-approach Controller, at Cape Town, it can be done, but it's going to have to be well-designed and managed. It could see some interesting routes into and out of Winelands and the successful integration of their traffic, into the Cape Town traffic sequences. It remains to be seen if CAA will license and approve these routes and if ATNS can tactically manage them on a day-to-day basis.

Then throw in the problem of Cape Town re-aligning their runway – part two of their upgrade. It won't be happening before 2027, the scheduled opening of WInelands, ATNS will then have to redesign all the airspace around Cape Town and Winelands and have to redesign, get approval and implement all new arrivals, letdowns and departures for both airports. That is a massive project and it's going to be a real bun fight to please both airport operators. With a strong North Wester blowing over the Peninsula, guaranteed you are going to get conflicts and a big traffic jam, in peak hours, in the Stellenbosch area, with aircraft being sequenced for northerly arrivals and keeping them above the terrain, at the same time. Who will ATNS favour and how they are going to do it, it's going to be very interesting, to say the least. I am sure the residents of Stellenbosch will not be happy with the increase in noise, although present and newer generation aircraft are much quieter than jets of 10 years ago and by encouraging potential operators to use these newer jets, should go a long way to appease the neighbours.

Is Winelands a threat to Cape Town? In the short term, no. In the long term, very much so. Will Cape Town be a threat to Winelands? Yes. Winelands are going to have to ensure they offer a better service to their potential customers, than the service the customer gets now at Cape Town, But much of that is dependent on external third parties to come to the party and support the aims and objectives of Winelands.

Winelands is fortunate to have an Executive Managing director of the likes of Deon Cloete – he comes from Cape Town International Airport and much of the success of this airport happened during his tenure, so he will be bringing a great wealth of knowledge with him, and also a vital list of useful contacts – these are going to be needed for Winelands to be a success. He has also been able to make use of many retired experts from ACSA and Cape Town International and this team will add a lot of value.

There is no doubt that the Cape Town area can support two large airports. Being so close to each other is going to be interesting. It's not going to be an easy one for Winelands to achieve, but as long as Cape Town delays their upgrades and gets rid of one runway, the path is certainly going to be easier for Winelands.



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