Upington Airport: Expanding aviation ambitions

Upington Airport may be the “baby” in the Airports Company South Africa Group, but an ambitious expansion programme and excellent runway facilities are paving the way for an exciting future.

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.

But Upington’s history was also linked to politics and when Angola became independent of Portugal, South African Airways lost its landing rights in Luanda. In addition to restrictions to overflying African states, there was concern that the country would lose its landing rights at the Ivory Coast and Cape Verde.

shutterstock_138608582Upington Airport’s runway was built to accommodate a Boeing 747 with a full load of passengers, cargo and fuel, so that it could take off for Europe without having to stop along the way. Upington was chosen because of its strategic position, availability of land and comparatively lower height above sea level than Johannesburg.

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.

In 1974 a corrugated iron fire station was erected but this structure was converted into administrative offices for airport management and other administrative staff in 1996 and the fire station was relocated.

From August 1976 to December 1996, South African Airways made use of Upington as a refuelling station for two weekly scheduled Boeing 747 flights to London and Zurich.
The airport also played an important role during this period, when it was reported that Concorde carried out flight testing at the site during June 1976.

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.

In early 2013 The SA-Mag spoke to the then Acting Airport Manager, Conwill Willemse, who explained the benefits of Upington’s location:
“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 explained.

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 described:
“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 said 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.”

shutterstock_134016287At present Willemse said that Upington has the capacity to accommodate 2 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.”

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.

Another 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 explained when we spoke.