George Airport: Much more than flights of fancy

Juggling customer prices can be a challenge to any business facing rising costs. In the airport industry, ticket prices have a varied impact, often depending on the location and therefore the demographics of passengers. At George Airport, where tourism has historically played an important role in passenger footfall, the economy has made for testing times.

07213012aGeorge Airport itself has historical connotations in the context of South Africa. It was built in 1977, at the request of President P.W. Botha, whose family hailed from the area – and originally it was known as P.W. Botha Airport.

Located in the heart of George, a town situated three and a half miles drive from Port Elizabeth and four and a half hours from Cape Town, on the Western Cape, a popular tourist route, the airport falls under the jurisdiction of Cape Town.

Brenda Vorster has worked as Airport Manager at George Airport for roughly four and a half years and has been an employee for the parent company Airports Company South Africa for the past eighteen years.

During that time she has seen lots of change not only at the airport, but in the town of George itself:

We are located on the ever-popular Garden Route and until recently, each year we have seen increasing numbers of visitors, travelling to the region’s mountains, beaches and forests. We have seen a drop in passenger numbers of late however, and at the moment we cater for 600,000 passengers a year, although we have a current capacity of 800,000.

Demographically tourism accounts for 58 per cent of our customers, with a further 42 per cent comprising of business travellers,” she explains.

Given the history of the region and its beauty, this was the fastest growing tourism region in South Africa until quite recently, but numbers have slightly dropped of late. The big impact is that when the economy hits, tourism falls the most and we have found that more people are driving through George rather than flying, because prices have gone up (both to account for rising operational costs and relatively).

Vorster says that plans are afoot to try to reinvigorate the tourism economy, which benefitted greatly from the Fifa World Cup (TM) of 2010:

07213016aWe sit on the tourism board panel and we are looking to negotiate holiday packages to the region that will include flights during 2013. Three years ago the World Cup resulted in three teams being based in our area, where they trained ahead of matches and this really helped to open up the region to new visitors. It is important that we sustain this.

At the moment George Airport operates 18 flights per day to Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban and plays host to three airlines: Airlink, Kulula and SA Express. The site is also a hub for all of the major car rental firms and non aeronautical income is one area of potential growth to Vorster:

What has been on the cards is to change the town of George into a place of investment, where businesses can prosper. The Airport is involved with the municipality and the George Business Chamber and the aim is to encourage investment and develop industry in the town.

The town of George is being marketed worldwide and we have already received a number of Chinese and Japanese pilots who have come to George Airport to train and gain their licences to fly.”

Whilst formal flying training takes place at the parent company’s Johannesburg headquarters, George Airport offers an ideal location for flying hours, as Vorster describes:

In general the weather here is conducive to flying and our airport has three peak seasons (Christmas, Easter and the School Holidays in September) and otherwise has the capacity off-peak to provide pilots with plenty of flying time.”

Training has also played an important role in building outstanding customer service and spirit amongst the 66 permanent members of staff, which culminated in George Airport winning awards in 2008, 2009 and 2010, as Best Station for its customer service.

I think this has been largely down to the training we provide and both stakeholders and staff are assessed in secret by an independent company, which provides feedback on standards. We provide all of our staff (at all levels) with annual training updates which are carried out by an external organisation and staff are all kept together, regardless of their position in the company. This has fostered a good team spirit and we are also able to give something back to the local community as this process involves the local university,” Vorster states.

Operationally, Vorster is adamant that the biggest focus is always turnaround – something that the weather can from time to time have a big say in: “Today the weather here is rainy and foggy – not a good combination. The aircraft normally land, are offloaded and boarded by the next set of passengers – normally this is a quick turnaround. But when conditions are like today, the terminal is full of passengers and flights get delayed.

D5216R_0055One of our other big operational requirements is to operate maintenance efficiently. We have a team of seven maintenance staff who take care of the day to day running of George Airport and operate special vehicles. The whole site is checked on a daily basis and we operate a Central Maintenance Management System (CMMS) to assist.

Technology is also increasingly playing its part in passenger check-in procedures, as the airport strives to make the customer experience as easy as possible. Vorster says that George Airport has agreed a budget which will enable it to bring in technology that allows passengers to self-check baggage at the airport, eliminating the potential for large queues. It is hoped that the new system will be introduced next year.

2013 also promises large scale changes at the airport, with the commencement of a R89 million project to refurbish runway 11/29. The work will see the 2000 metre long runway resurfaced and will take approximately 6 months to complete, with Vorster indicating that it will be business as usual for George Airport, with work taking place during the night.

In addition, the terminal is to undergo an upgrade in the region of R10 million, as Vorster outlines:

We are going to give the airport a makeover, replacing tiles and pavements and upgrading toilets, to ensure the facility is pleasant and welcoming to our clients. We will also be upgrading the fire station and we have agreed a separate budget to build lock-up facilities and warehousing for local commerce. We currently operate a cold storage facility but there is talk of use possibly handling more cargo in the future and we will wait to see how things develop in the town.”

Another significant project will be the construction of a new fuelling station on the George Airport site. Whilst revenues are currently fairly equally split between airline and non-aeronautical income, the new development will potentially increase visitors from around the region, as Vorster explains:

The fuel station will cost around R7 million to build and should be fully operational by 2014. This is quite a good benefit as the local community (consisting of neighbouring farmers) currently has to travel 15 kilometres for fuel. The new station will not only serve airport passengers but the car rental businesses as well as the local community.”

Overall George Airport currently employs in the region of 550 staff, that figure could rise in the future, given ambitious plans to build a 70-room hotel onsite in the next five years.

Shorter term, Vorster remains upbeat about the prospects of turning around the currently economic challenges: “The price of tickets is going to remain a challenge during the coming year,” she acknowledges, “our aim is to encourage people to use the airport rather than driving through and we are confident and hopeful that our marketing campaign will make this option an attractive one.