Plettenberg Bay airport flights
Alien vegetation cleared from Plettenberg Bay airport (Image used with permission: Plettenberg Bay Airport-PBZ, Facebook)
  • Plettenberg Bay airport was downgraded by the South African Civil Aviation Authority in August due to non-compliance.
  • This halted commercial flights to and from the small Garden Route town which depends on seasonal tourists.
  • CemAir, a privately owned commercial airline which services the town, was forced to suspend its operations.
  • The airline has since spent around R1 million upgrading the airport, even though that work is usually the responsibility of the licensee, which, in this case, is Bitou Local Municipality.
  • The airport is due for an inspection on Friday and, if given the all-clear, CemAir flights will resume on 12 November.
  • For more stories, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Commercial flights to and from Plettenberg Bay airport are likely to resume in November, thanks, in large part, to costly upgrades undertaken by privately owned airline, CemAir.

South Africa’s tourism sector, unshackled from red lists and other restrictive coronavirus-induced travel measures, is gearing up for a bumper summer season. This is especially true for the Garden Route, a firm favourite among domestic and international travellers looking for a seaside escape in the summer.

Plettenberg Bay airport, a hive of pre-pandemic activity welcoming passengers to the Garden Route throughout the summer season, has been eerily quiet. It’s not just Covid-19 and associated lockdown restrictions which have cleared the once-busy runway.

The SACAA (South African Civil Aviation Authority) downgraded the small airport in August due to non-compliance. The airport’s long-standing deficiencies, warned of over several years, resulted in commercial flights being barred from operating. This piled further pain onto Plettenberg Bay’s embattled hospitality sector and at a critical time, as the country prepared to be relieved of travel restrictions.

Bitou Local Municipality, the airport’s licensee, responsible for ensuring compliance with the SACAA, would have had to act fast. But, following years of neglect and repeated warnings of a looming downgrade, the municipality, afflicted by political complexities, was slow to respond.

CemAir, which first started flying to Plettenberg Bay in 2014 and is the only commercial airline which services the seaside town from Johannesburg and Cape Town, suspended its operation on 10 August.

A month later, the airline announced that it had entered into a binding agreement with the municipality to restore the Plettenberg Bay Airport License, even though this responsibility rests with the licensee.

“It’s semi-home for me and I actually like the place. So, there’s a lot of [other] reasons we went down this road, more than it [Plettenberg Bay] being a vital destination,” CemAir CEO, Miles van der Molen, tells Business Insider South Africa, on the airline’s decision to bring the airport up to standard. “We have a lot of affection for this place.”

Plettenberg Bay airport flights
Fire and Rescue crews undergoing practical training and fire drills (Image used with permission: Plettenberg Bay Airport-PBZ, Facebook)

Plettenberg Bay airport a key node for the Garden Route

And Plettenberg Bay airport needed a lot of work, more work, van der Molen admits, than initially anticipated. Instead of pinning hope on Bitou Municipality, which, in the past, had demonstrated a laissez-faire attitude to upkeep, CemAir got to work on upgrading the airport.

“A big chunk of it was general admin, that the SACAA requires strict records… the fire department has to do regular training and that has to be recorded. There were no records,” says van der Molen.

“There were airport manuals that hadn’t been updated for many years. There were runway markings that were incorrect. Then there was a lot of bush that had to be cleared on the airport grounds that hadn’t been maintained.”

Around 10 hectares of alien vegetation had to be removed to ensure the airport was up to standard, according to van der Molen.

Van der Molen estimates that upgrade work done to the airport over the past three months cost in the region of R1 million. CemAir has footed the bill.

“The decision was that if we wanted to fix it, we’d have to roll up our sleeves and fix it ourselves,” says van der Molen, adding that these costs would be funded from future landing expenses.

Plettenberg Bay airport will undergo a SACAA inspection on Friday, with van der Molen confident that enough has been done to approve commercial operations. CemAir aims to recommence flights to and from Plettenberg Bay on 12 November. This is later than the airline would’ve liked, cutting it fine for the busy summer season.

“We were hoping to have these findings addressed a month ago… so we’re behind where we should’ve been at this point, but we’re desperately trying to meet those targets,” says Van der Molen, adding that the long-term goal was on servicing the boom in semigration, particularly from Johannesburg, along the Garden Route.

“The property market in Plett, all the way across to Mossel Bay, is booming. There are so many people moving here. It really is the time of opportunity for this part of the country.”

Plettenberg Bay airport flights
Bitou road markings team (Image used with permission: Plettenberg Bay Airport-PBZ, Facebook)

An easy commute amid the semigration trend

The Bitou Municipality didn’t respond to Business Insider SA’s queries regarding the state of Plettenberg Bay airport, and its role, or lack thereof, in upkeep prior to August’s downgrading and its impact on the town.

Councillor David Swart, who oversees Ward 2, which contains the airport, confirmed that the municipality had been slow to act on heightened warnings raised earlier this year. CemAir’s work and funding to get the airport reopened has also been an extraordinary measure.

“Something like this is more than you would expect [from] someone who’s basically a client using your airport,” Swart tells Business Insider SA of CemAir’s intervention.

“But, also, CemAir sees the value in the route, because of the size of the airfield you can’t look at any bigger airlines and bigger aircraft. So, for them, it’s better, and that’s why they’re prepared to put in what they’re putting in but, it’s certainly more than what you’d expect from one of your customers to be doing.”

Swart also echoes Van der Molen’s sentiment on the importance of Plettenberg Bay airport for the Garden Route economy. The airport, once up to standard, is set to play an even bigger role, coinciding with lockdown-induced semigration and work-from-home trends.

“Especially since lockdown, a lot of people have realised they can work remotely. So, what we’ve found is a lot of people that had holiday homes here have now moved their families down permanently and they commute,” says Swart.

“So, in terms of the residents using the airport, it’s very important. And then also for tourists that fly in, it’s key towards the end of the year for season.”

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