One of the beauties of starting small is the excitement as a business gathers momentum and begins to grow. Upington Airport may be the “baby” in the Airports Company South Africa Group, but under the watchful eyes of current Acting Airport Manager, Conwill Willemse, it is already beginning to fulfil ambitious expansion plans.
History dictates that Upington Airport then known as Pierre van Ryneveld Airport, located in the Northern Cape, officially opened its doors in the early 1900s. A cross grass runway was in use and situated adjacent to the current SANDF facilities known as 8SA Infantry Battalion.
In 1968 the airport was revamped and the site became Upington Airport. Back then it boasted a double storey building, and it even had a viewing deck that was frequented by families on week-end outings and meeting and greeting loved ones.
Today, Upington International Airport has grown in size and has modernized significantly from those humble beginnings. It received its International status with the inception of Airports Company SA in 1993 and in recent years has enjoyed an 8 per cent annual increase in passenger figures.
Willemse assumed his current interim role in early December, as his predecessor Me. Esmaralda Barnes, who had a major role in uplifting the Airport with the different projects has moved to manage Bloemfontein, however Upington feels like home as he explains:
“I had previously worked here for three years and feel like I have grown up at Upington Airport and would like to see it continue to grow,” he enthuses.
“The airport is ideally located close to the busy N10 and N14 between Namibia and our main cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town. There are regular flights and good rail and road links to up here,” he continues.
Whilst Upington is the smallest airport within the Group, its ambitions are grand and it boasts the longest runway in the entire Southern Hemisphere, as Willemse describes:
“Runway 17/35 was built (by LTS) in just six months, from January through to July 1976. It was built specifically to accommodate a Boeing 747 (as it still does today) and Upington was chosen because of its location and the availability of land.”
Willemse says that the Boeing 747s are significant in as much as they bring international cargo to South Africa and that in turn encourages foreign investment in Upington:
“We only operate two or three flights a day to Cape Town and Johannesburg and we have between 55,000 and 60,000 passengers per year. However our split is roughly 80 per cent business travel to 20 per cent tourism and the business aspect – in particular freight, has an important role in our revenue and our future.
“Our “busy season” for cargo is between October and April – when the weather is typically hot and dry. We get a lot of business travellers from Germany, from companies like BMW and Mercedes Benz, who bring cars over on the Boeing 747s, to test vehicles in our environment. This business opens up other opportunities and we have been fortunate to acquire overseas investment to help further develop the airport and its surrounds.”
At present Willemse says that Upington has the capacity to accommodate two Boeing 747s simultaneously and investment in the last few years has given the airport greater capabilities for handling cargo and providing extra services.
“We have two warehouses and use just one handling company,” he describes, “much of the handling is mechanical and includes high loaders and low loaders. In addition we have a current fuelling capacity of 3 million litres of Jet A1, so if there is a fuel shortage in say Cape Town, aircraft can come to Upington to refuel.”
In recent years Upington has also become a destination for “long-term parking” – where old aircraft are kept in storage. This particular initiative has delivered some additional financial incentives, and the aircraft are not just moth-balled, they are maintained so that they are ready to fly if required.
The past few years has seen significant investment to maintain Upington’s status in an ever-competitive marketplace: including a R35 million upgrade to the runways, which were resurfaced. The construction of new terminal buildings cost a further R35-40 million and at present Upington is upgrading its cargo area with a new palletising zone.
“All of this will take time to settle in and whilst we are still working on attaining a full return on this investment, the growth of the airport is quite visible through commerce and passenger volumes,” Willemse states.
“Our parent company will look at opportunities and invest where appropriate, have recently appointed people to look at our options for increasing income on the non-aeronautical side.
“As we are a small airport, we have not really marketed ourselves extensively in the past and of course our hands are quite tied in regards to aeronautical income – we currently operate with one scheduled airline based at Upington, although if other airlines want to use our facilities we would welcome them. The non-aeronautical opportunities give us much greater control if we can get businesses to invest in us.”
One significant recent development has seen Upington chosen as the site for a brand new 10 mega watt solar power farm. The project will see a joint venture partnership between The Power Company, Rio Glass and Eskom, who will build the plant on the existing airfield.
“The power cannot be delivered direct to the consumer so once generated it will be redirected into the Eskom grid and of course we will be able to utilise this electricity, although the project will benefit the whole community,” Willemse explains.
He says that progress is good and Rio Glass have already begun construction of their warehouse and plant to build panels – once this phase is completed, the process of installation can begin, projected around May 2013.
As Upington looks at opportunities to encourage commerce and investment, the next stage may be to look at building a hotel and restaurant services at the airport. While Willemse says no specific plans at present, such a venture would very much be in keeping with his long-term hopes for Upington:
“I want to see the continued growth of the airport and to see us switch from a non-profit making company to a profitable business.”