Airport that hopes to be more than a mirage

Posted On Wednesday, 17 March 2004 02:00 Published by
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La Mercy project is in the final stages of a feasibility study, raising hopes that it may finally get off the ground

KwaZulu-Natal Correspondent

PROPOSALS for a new international airport north of Durban have been on the cards for so long, with so little action taken, that many are sceptical it will ever take off.

President Thabo Mbeki promised that infrastructure improvement along the KwaZulu-Natal coast included moving the province's airport to La Mercy. The cabinet has given approval for the broader Dube Trade Port initiative that proposes a logistics hub in addition to the airport .

Dube Trade Port CEO Rohan Persad says the only outstanding issues are the land acquisition from the Airports Company of SA (Acsa) and the decommissioning of Durban International Airport.

The project is in the final stages of a public-private partnership feasibility study, and Dube Trade Port, the company established to manage the industrial development project, is in discussions with the national treasury over planning and funding issues.
Persad says there is a government commitment to begin the relocation by 2006. However, government will not carry the risk of this development, and the bulk of funding must be driven by the private sector.

Persad will not be drawn on the level of investment government is prepared to carry, despite cost estimates nudging towards R2bn.
Those favouring the new airport argue Durban's runway is too short to accommodate large jets , limiting tourist arrivals. In addition, perishable cargo such as fresh-cut flowers and organic fruit and vegetables are jeopardised by spending hours in transit in Johannesburg .

Acsa invested millions of rands upgrading Johannesburg International Airport as the country's main hub and Cape Town as the second international gateway. But Acsa and the KwaZuluNatal government have come to blows over La Mercy. Public works MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu has issued notice that government will expropriate Acsa's 206899ha of land at La Mercy.

The move fixes a clear time frame for Acsa to negotiate and settle ownership of the site, which economic development and tourism MEC Roger Burrows believes "is a major step forward for the Dube Trade Port initiative".

"For too long Acsa has kept the door shut with respect to negotiating on a willing seller, willing buyer, basis. This is a strong sign of how determined provincial government is to realise the Dube Trade Port," he says.

Acsa is "vigorously opposing" the land expropriation. Communications manager Solomon Makgale says Acsa agrees with relocating to La Mercy, but has "a different model" that eliminates government funding and creates an economically viable project driven by passenger growth.

Acsa believes the new airport should be built only after Durban International Airport has reached full capacity. Traffic growth forecasts indicate this will happen only between 2017 and 2020, when passenger numbers reach 5-million.

Dube Trade Port project executive Ahmed Bassa says this creates "a chicken and egg dilemma . Without a gateway to service passengers and cargo demands, traffic volumes cannot grow and investments will not be forthcoming," he says .

A decade ago, international passenger volumes were lower through Cape Town than Durban . Today only one international carrier services Durban directly, while Cape Town is abuzz with international tourists .

Bassa believes SA has the capacity for a second airports company, paving the way for La Mercy to be managed by another player .
Persad says for the airport to open for business by 2009, procurements must begin this year and construction by 2007. The treasury is expecting anticipating plans for construction to will be on schedule by the middle of this year.In 1983, when former National Party transport minister Hendrik Schoeman was asked in Parliament when Durban's new airport would be built, he responded: "Forget about La Mercy. Get it out of your head."Two decades later, there is still no commercial airport at La Mercy and the politics is still playing a significant role. The question thus begs whether the airport will always just remain a field north of Durban and an issue for discussion by everyone involved.


Publisher: Business Day
Source: Business Day

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