Ambitous African Airports

How long does it take to design and build an airport?

If you ask an airport operator in Europe, North America or Japan, most will tell you 10 to 20 years. But if you ask the airport operator in South Africa, it claims only three years. And it is serious.

South Africa does not plan to even select a consortium to design and build the new Durban International Airport until early next year. But the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) is committed to opening the airport prior to the 2010 World Cup, which will be staged in South Africa.

To a journalist who has reported on the delays experienced by several new airports including most recently Bangkok, building a new airport in only three years seems impossible. So while attending the Airports Council International (ACI) world annual general assembly this week in Cape Town, I challenged South African transport minister Jeff Radebe and ACSA chief executive Monhla Hlahla by asking them if their schedule for Durban International was really realistic.

“We’re on track,” insists Radebe.

Hlahla acknowledges “there’s always a risk there will be a delay” but insists an airport can be built in two to three years. South Africa does not have most of the obstacles, including environmental, that Europe or other regions face, she says.

ACSA group executive for aviation services John Neville says one of two local consortiums, which submitted their combined design-build bids at the end of last month, will be selected by the end of the first quarter of 2007. Construction will begin in April and conclude at the end of 2009. After a simulation exercise the airport will open by the end of the first quarter of 2010, Neville says.

But funding for the project, which will cost an estimated 3 to 4 billion rand ($413 to $552 million), has not yet been committed. Environmental approval also has not yet been secured. Both of these obstacles, which in other countries can hold up new airport construction for several years, are expected to be cleared by year-end.

The new airport will initially handle up to 7.5 million passengers per year with 13 gates but can later be expanded to handle up to 45 million passengers annually. The runway will be long enough to accommodate a fully-loaded Airbus A380 freighter. The current airport, which is South Africa’s third largest after Johannesburg and Cape Town, can now handle up to 4 million passengers annually.

It is hard to believe Durban will have a new airport for the 2010 World Cup after hearing during the ACI assembly from Kansai International Airport president Atushi Murayama how it took 20 years to build Kansai. But Durban International was not even the most ambitious airport project discussed during the ACI general assembly this week.

The landlocked Western African country of Burkina Faso is trying to attract a private company to help fund, build and operate a new airport at its capital Ouagadougou, although its current airport only handles 300,000 passengers annually. At least the Burkina Faso transport minister, Gilbert Noel Ouedraogo, and its consultant, Lufthansa Consulting, are realistic about the time it will take to build the new airport. They hope a new airport will open in five years but acknowledge it could take eight to 10 years.

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