Grand Central Airport: Going back to school for take off

When the South African Government adopted a new approach to national aviation in 1998, it heralded a period of transition for many airports. For many airports, losing their international status proved an enormous blow, but for some, the change has proved the catalyst for creating different revenue streams. Such has been the story of Grand Central Airport, comfortably nestled between Gauteng’s OR Tambo Airport and Lanseria Airport – and doing a roaring trade in flight school training.

Despite its name, Grand Central Airport never had any grand designs to dominate South African aerospace, indeed its early years after initially starting off in 1937, saw the airfield used exclusively by a flying club. That modest start to life is today commemorated in the Airport’s official logo.

For the first few years activity at the airport remained quiet and in 1951 Grand Central came pretty much to a standstill, only to bounce back in 1964, when a project got underway to build hangars.

“It was at that point that the airport started expanding to accommodate commercial and private operators, training schools and maintenance organizations.” states Gary Renault, Airport Manager at Grand Central Airport – and self-confessed eternal optimist. “Having been privately-owned, in 1991 a consortium bought the airport, embarking on a multi-million Rand upgrade to offer more facilities thus playing an even more important part in the aviation industry in South Africa.

At that time, there were numerous airports around South Africa providing international services for passengers. Grand Central did particularly well from cross-border medical evacuation flights and the chartered flight industry also provided a welcome source of revenue.

However, that all changed in 1998, when the South African Government re-assessed the domestic aerospace industry, as Renault recalls:

“At that stage the Government introduced a Canadian model for security and it was decided that each province would only have one airport with international status, with the exception of Gauteng, which has OR Tambo and Lanseria.

“It was a trying time for Grand Central and a lot of other airports and we lost a lot of business from air services that were relying on international airports. We had a exodus of tenants and all the medical evacuation crews relocated to Lanseria.

“Slowly but surely we have built ourselves back up and pilot training plays an important role in Grand Central Airport these days.”

Today Grand Central operates as a general aviation airport, with no scheduled airlines. Instead, the airport relies on private aviation, chartered flights and flight training.

“Our aircraft movements are extremely high for a small airport and because we are only dealing with small aircraft, our separation issues are very low and we can land and park aircraft at a much higher frequency than commercial airports,” Renault explains.

“During 2012 we have around 92,000 aircraft movements at Grand Central which put us in contention for one of the busiest airports in Gauteng.

Despite the fallout from losing its international airport licence, Grand Central managed to retain two chartered airline companies who have kept their headquarters onsite, despite the fact that any international flights are expensive and require the planes to fly from Grand Central to a International Airport to clear customs & immigration and then onwards, having a huge impact on fuel costs, landing fees & aircraft maintenance.

Renault joined Grand Central Airport in April 2009 and has just celebrated his fourth anniversary with the company. Having worked in the commercial side of the industry for many years before joining the privately-owned airport, the current President of the Airports & Aerodromes Association of SA and existing board member of the Commercial Aviation Association of Southern Africa (CAASA), has a unique take on things:

“I worked for Comair Limited for seven years and had always been more involved in the ground operations and airlines before I joined,” he reflects. “When an airport loses its international status many security requirements fall away (although we have our own internal security requirements) and there is much more space in the terminal building nowadays.

“I changed the management structure slightly and increased our staff numbers. We are still growing and have plans for the future but the important thing is that we are a successful business providing first class service to the aviation industry.

“However expansion and dreams come at a price and you need to manage the process of growth smoothly; we are headed in the direction I want the business to go.”

Right now Renault says that the airport is at full capacity for hangars, while the terminal is 80 per cent full. Each flight school based at Grand Central operates approximately 14 aircraft which puts a premium on hangar space but also brings in another significant revenue stream in fuel supplies.

A decisive factor in Grand Central’s future will be whether it can regain its international airport status, Renault having submitted an application with the Government in January 2011. It is a very slow process and the outcome will determine how much upgrading the airport will require in the future:

“We are on track with our expenditure and we are gaining momentum. I am busy right now with the international airport application and in March 2011 we obtained a declaration for our own air space from the Civil Aviation Authority.

“Just because we are currently a general aviation airport does not preclude us from talking to commercial airlines; although bringing an airline to Grand Central will radically change the dynamics here and we would have to consider terminal security, baggage handling, our existing fuel farm and all kinds of additional infrastructure needs.”

At the present time many of the flight schools are securing work from across the continent.

Once Easter has passed business will pick up until the end of November, with the end of the year through to the end of February representing what Renault calls the “quiet season”.

In the meantime, the owners of Harvard Cafe have been busy marketing the Restaurant, located in the terminal, which opened its doors to the public last August. The diner caters for local Midrand families, staff and visitors alike and Renault says that after a slow start, business is picking up encouragingly:

“We hope that one or two people will “window shop” whilst they are at the restaurant and maybe enquire into one or two of the flight schools,” he states.

Further investment was recently made updating the Fire Department’s fleet of vehicles which had become outdated and Renault says that these are working phenomenally well and a source of pride.

Grand Central is also addressing its environmental impact and is working in collaboration with Eskom on the early stages of a project to replace existing lighting with fewer, more energy efficient light bulbs.

Future expansion will have to be carefully planned, given that Grand Central is located on only 40 hectares of land and has constraints, not least of which is a nearby development owned by Old Mutual, which has plans to build a mixed complex on the airport’s doorstep. The project might of course open up new opportunities and Renault is interested to see the progress made, in his role as a  committee member of the Johannesburg Chambers of Commerce.

Grand Central Airport may have endured some tough decisions over the years, but has emerged a much stronger entity for the experience. With wonderful transport links to nearby Johannesburg, Pretoria, Sandton & OR Tambo Airport – thanks to the Gautrain and nearby Freeway, Renault’s optimism is well-placed for a bright future.