by Shanon Manuel

FLYING HIGH: CAPE TOWN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT SETS GOLD STANDARD

One of the crowns of Cape Town’s tourism and business infrastructure is undoubtedly the dynamic Cape Town International Airport. It serves millions of tourists yearly, en route to being awarded the title of the best airport in Africa in 2017.

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And it is not by luck that any airport can win such a prestigious prize. Many of Africa’s leading centres are building lavish new airports to keep up with the swelling numbers of tourists, wishing to break the winter chills to experience the warmth of an African summer.

And with more and more direct flights calling Cape Town home, the future is looking bright. The airport has really made an effort to make life easier for passengers, 30 minutes parking is free for pick-ups, and checking in is often fast and seamless. Gone are the days when you’d have to arrive at the airport two hours early and queue for an hour.

There is obviously also a push to keep flights on schedule to avoid delays, especially when dealing with international travel that often relies on connecting flights from other destinations.

To find out more, Gregory Simpson caught up with highly experienced General Manager at Cape Town International Airport, Deon Cloete, who has nearly 30 years’ experience in the aviation industry. During this time he served at all nine of our airports and was also seconded to South African Airways in 2000/2001, where he served as General Manager: Support Services.

He serves on the Boards of Wesgro, the Western Cape Economic Development Agency responsible for tourism, trade and investment as well as the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI).

Keys to success

He begins by outlining his keys to success. “We’ve got a secret ingredient called people that are really passionate about what they do. We’re blessed with a great team that’s prepared to really commit themselves one hundred percent to making each and every passenger feel at ease,” says Cloete.

“Although we are in the volume game, and it’s not just ACSA, it’s a consolidation of all of our stakeholders, that have really been able to make sure that we carefully plan and execute the value proposition, making sure to provide the safety and security context, and most importantly, convenience. People just want convenience, they don’t want to be hassled, and they want to be in and out.”

Record numbers

Cloete explains that the airport has recently gone through ten million passengers per annum, on the back of some very exciting growth.

“Overall you’re talking 7-8%, but if you unpack that internationally, we’re 27% up, that was 2016 and the year prior to that exactly the same. You’ve got double-digit growth on double-digit growth so it creates a lot of volume but you can’t lose the quality element.

“It’s through a common situational awareness, an all hands on deck approach to the job and what needs to be done—the planning and execution— that maintains the level of quality control. And in instances where mistakes are made, we all get together and evaluate where we went wrong and what we can do to prevent a repeat experience.

“If there’s an issue, we deal with it and transparently so and really make sure that we try not make the same mistake again. I really believe as much as we have world-class facilities and infrastructure, it’s the people that make the difference.”

Affordability and accessibility

In terms of affordability and accessibility, Cloete explains that this an area in which they are hard at work, and they are looking at surrounding local communities where there are a large segments of people that have never travelled before.

“We are really pushing hard, and I must say that the airline collaborations have been fantastic, and we work together to achieve the high growth. We started this air access initiative some two years back, and in those two years we have added ten new routes and eleven expanded routes.

All of these new routes have given us a lot of volume and it’s great to have—it was 750 000 seats one way in, 750 000 seats one way out, but those are seats, they’re not passengers. You have to put bums in seats, and you can only do so if you have a good value proposition and the airlines have really made it a big priority to make affordability a focus.”

Cloete explains that in consultation with the airlines they agreed on a significant investment programme to respond to the growth while retaining affordability.

“Historically the criticism levelled against us is to say that you’ve got growth and are responding to it, but in doing so you now have a situation where tariffs are increasing and that’s not good for the industry as a whole. So the approach that we took with the airline associations AASA and BARSA was to say let us really make sure we don’t lose the investments. If we’re going to invest let’s say R5 billion at Cape Town International Airport let’s get that committed but at the same time how can we make it more affordable, without going into all those reiterations and the workings.

“But we were able, at a group level, to reduce our tariffs as the Airports Company since April of this year by 35%. Now 35% is very meaningful, certainly it is a huge plus for the travelling public. The same benefit goes to the airlines so they pay less in terms of landing, landing fees and as passengers. The parking of aircraft and the passengers get the benefit of the departure tax, 35% is 35%.”

In addition the initiative has acquired some international business as well as both provincial and city participation.

“So it’s the three tiers of government led by Wesgro, who is the implementing agent, and their CEO Tim Harris and his team that are doing some fantastic work. Recently SA Tourism also joined the collaboration as a partner.

“And then you tag in big corporates, and big business that see the value of having good connectivity in a city where they are set up, and they also start supporting the initiative and then you’ve got a really good solution on the table.

“The growth is critical—he growth drives everything. If you don’t have growth we won’t have investments, we won’t have jobs, and it has to change and shape in terms of the region and the city we serve.”

Time for celebration

Would you believe it, it has been 25 years since the airport was re-branded from DF Malan into the Cape Town International Airport, which has seen more than just a name change. Massive investment was made prior to the 2010 Soccer World Cup, which gave many of SA’s airports a much-needed facelift and modernisation. Cloete remembers how it all evolved.

“We’re celebrating 25 years this year. Initially in the first few years I was privileged to be part of that journey, we put a lot of focus on the asset you know, we invested in the asset, SA opened up to the world, we were the flavour of the month and the year. It was a honeymoon period and you know it was just flooding in, and we just had to make sure we could cope, so we furiously built infrastructure and then we had this world cup and we built again.

“We are very proud of what we’ve achieved as a country and particularly in terms of the airport we really believe we have world-class airport. We also then realised that we need to slightly shift our focus and this is strongly endorsed by the board.

“We also need to start looking at the out and not just the in and Cape Town is a very good example. “

Upliftment

Anybody who has driven to the airport will know that it is surrounded by poor communities that are in desperate need of more employment and hope. The airport, as it grows, provides an opportunity for more jobs, not only in aviation, but peripheral industries like catering and hospitality.

Cloete says, “We have surrounding communities which desperately need upliftment and hence us adopting what we refer to as an aerotropolis where we say let this airport not only benefit the airport but let us start shaping and changing the surrounding communities. And we’ve got very good examples of that happening now, because of the airport expansion some 2 500 families have moved out of their current desperate circumstances into formal housing.

“We also have community members being trained by colleges to know how to build their own homes— creating real empowerment and a future together and doing things that will not only enable the airport but really drive the opportunity to create more jobs, getting more businesses set up and then very importantly good housing solutions.

The City will lead this and make sure that people don’t have to travel so far to get to a quality job and they don’t have to spend so much money to just get to work, that work will be on their doorstep and by the way this is not just a new doorstep, this is a new house. So yes, we also dream but a lot of that happens. I mean we have, since we started this journey about five or six years ago, some 500 families who have already moved into their formal house, that’s fantastic.

“It’s one of the best experiences to be with somebody the day they receive the keys to their house after they’ve waited 20 years. It’s just an unbelievable experience.

“So we are obviously clear on our role and mandate as an airport operator and that will always be our priority. However, a huge, huge push from our side in the community side of things and how we shape and improve the lives of people is important,” he says.

New runway

There has been a lot of talk recently about the new runway that is on the cards to fully accommodate the bigger Airbus A380 for international flights and cargo.

At the moment the planes are unable to fly at maximum payload given the length of the runway. Cloete goes on to explain exactly where it will be placed.

“If one is familiar with the current runway, it’s parallel to the terminal. That runway is over 50 years old, and it has served us very, very well and we still maintain it, it’s in good nick, in fact we refurbed it about five years ago, spending just short of R200 million to make sure it’s in really good condition. We can’t have a runway fail on us, there’s just too much at stake.

“The beauty is that that runway, in the future configuration, will be a taxiway so it’s not money wasted, we are still going to use it as part of the infrastructure, but we then—picture this—we lift the runway and move it 200 metres to the east towards Stellenbosch, first towards Stellenbosch and then we rotate the runway 11.5 degrees. We rotate so that it opens up towards Somerset West, at the Denel site.

“In terms of the engagements we had with the pilot fraternity and the engineers, it gives us a very good technical solution on the ground. The runway is meant to achieve optimum efficiency, optimum safety and other considerations. Equally so, it just so happens that it also gives us the best noise footprint on the ground. We’ve just concluded the EIA, and have secured approval for our project, which has been suspended pending the processing of one appeal, and which we hope to have processed by the end of the year.

“The main argument that we’re putting forward is that as a responsible developer we will build this runway, and in so doing we will create 50% more capacity, i.e. we can move from 30 flights per hour to 45.

“We can now accommodate any aircraft including the A380 and with all of this growth and additional capability we’re actually reducing the noise footprint.

“If we had continued with the current runway it would be far worse than doing the new runway,” insists the likeable Cloete.

Politics vs. tourism

With SA in a state of political turmoil and recession for much of 2017, the airport’s tourism figures were unaffected over the last calendar year. This would indicate that people are still regarding SA as a prime destination, perhaps due to the weak rand, warm weather and plethora of cheap flights from Europe.

Cloete says, “Travellers are very resilient. I have just seen an article that suggested exactly that, we are still a destination of choice, we’re not talking Cape Town we’re talking about the country as a whole and the proposition is there so we must just not mess it up and we mustn’t take it for granted.

“So our focus is the additional volume and we’re very mindful that everyone is watching and there’s a certain expectation.

“The travellers that are coming in during the high season come every year and they become accustomed to a certain level of service, so if you now get stuck in a queue for two hours it’s not acceptable and if you don’t have your luggage arrive it’s just not acceptable.

“You’re only as good as your last passenger so certainly for us the focus will be to make sure that we support growth initiatives—and I must just mention that this growth is on the back of careful planning.

“We don’t just randomly allow flights to fall in here, we go through a slot request and approval process, we schedule the airlines very carefully so that we can do the volumes we’re doing. The year before last was a good example, the winter of 2016 in Europe was exceptionally bad and when you have a very harsh winter your flights arrive here randomly, they’re all out of schedule, some are a bit early some are a bit late, they literally arrive here on top of each other and then you have some congestion so we work very hard on normalising the operation.”

Time is money

In the modern era of high-paced business and travel, time is money and delays can cost and airline or airport valuable time and reputation, neither of which can afford to be lost in a highly competitive space.

Cloete knows the importance of this, “We’ve got a centre here called the airport management centre, all of the roleplayers sit and they have full view of what’s going on, and they are also in contact with centres in Johannesburg and Durban and elsewhere.

“We put a lot of effort into making sure we keep the flights on time. We are very proud of the fact that we’ve got an almost 90% on time performance rate and that is why we are in category number six in the world for on time performance—not for the continent—in the world. The on time performance gives passengers predictability and comfort so that they know they won’t have frustrations. And if it happens, it really is the exception and not the rule.”

Master plan

As the airport continues to grow it is essential that the surrounding infrastructure develop with it. The BRT bus network has certainly helped travellers reach the city centre from the airport with ease.

“However, with the amount of congestion on the roads, it is essential that we develop rail links too. The success of Joburg’s Gautrain is a shining example of what should be done for the Mother City.

“On the master plan level, we have a rail link into the airport and we will have to press that button when the time is right but certainly currently with the BRT or the bus service being very efficient, it works well. Now that we’ve also passed the ten million passenger mark we have to look at the airport slightly differently, we know it’s coming and probably with the type of growth we’re seeing now sooner rather than later. It is really unprecedented to have the type of growth we have had at Cape Town International Airport,” concludes the knowledgeable Cloete. 

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