Come in Bitou, we have a problem

Posted On Sunday, 18 April 2010 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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A standoff is brewing between the Western Cape government and the Bitou council over the neglected Plettenberg Bay airport.

Property-Housing-ResidentialThe once busy airport, in the playground of the rich and famous, no longer has scheduled flights or fuel — but still has an airport staff of six, including two municipal refuellers.

Municipal corporate services head Carl Mattheus this week confirmed that the refuelling staff had been redeployed to “upgrade the windsocks” which no longer meet transport specifications.

Private pilots, who still use the runway, say efforts to rescue the airport are being blocked by the Bitou council, which owns and manages the property.

Not only has the council stopped pilots securing their own fuel supply from Air BP, it has also turned down development proposals which would put the airport back on the map — and earn much-needed tourism revenue.

Prominent business people who use the facility, including one of the country’s airline chiefs, either store fuel in their hangars or detour to George or Oudtshoorn to refuel their private planes. They include Airlink CEO Rodger Foster, Ekapa Mining CEO Jahn Hohne, Sir Dominic Cadbury of the Cadbury Chocolate empire, and Shaun Smith, son of author Wilbur Smith.

Western Cape Transport MEC Robin Carlisle this week lashed the local Bitou council: “There must be some sinister purpose in Plettenberg Bay not developing their own airport, or not giving it to somebody else to develop.”

If there was no move to develop the airport, Carlisle said it would be necessary to investigate the development of “some form of (other) regional airport to cover the Knysna/Plett area”.

The neglected facility has sparked a political row in the ANC-controlled Bitou council, with opposition DA members calling the airport a setback for local tourism.

The row hit fever pitch earlier this year when Air BP cancelled its fuel supply agreement with the council, and removed its fuel tanks.

When private users tried to secure their own fuel deal with Air BP, the council refused to allow it. BP director of communications and external affairs, Sam Mupanemunda, confirmed that the company had ceased operating from the airport because it “was no longer economically viable”.

Now local tourism stakeholders are furious, and claim the Bitou council is deliberately sabotaging the facility. “It is absolutely crazy, we have six full-time employees who sit on their bums all day,” one private user said.

Mattheus confirmed that the council had turned down a private business proposal to supply fuel and keep the airport alive.

He said the council had decided instead to call for development proposals for the entire airport vicinity.

But the process was being delayed by a dispute over the airport access road, which is on private property.

“Once that (road) problem is resolved we will call for proposals for development of the airport site on a long-term lease basis,” Mattheus said.

“We did not allow private people to become involved because council has already resolved that the future lessee must be responsible for fuel.”

However, the Sunday Times has established that:

  • The Bitou council has turned down numerous airport development proposals over the past six years;
  • A business delegation to the council’s head-office was told their development plan would not “benefit the people”;
  • The council fuel account with BP was regularly in arrears;
  • The Plett flight school has closed and other tenants are battling to survive without fuel; and
  • The council installed carports for airport staff, but the runway and the hangars are falling into disrepair.

Hangar owner Jahn Hohne said: “The airport needs to be privatised and (the runway) needs to be lengthened by 200m to 300m to accommodate small charter or commercial aircraft.

“Lack of a proper airport is definitely dragging Plett down,” he said.

Last modified on Monday, 19 May 2014 09:29

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