07/05/2015 Durban Shaun Ryley is standing outside City Hall with a big smile after recieving his documents from Ethekwini municity. PICTURE: SIBUSISO NDLOVU

Durban - It’s official: Virginia Airport will close by December 2018. King Shaka International Airport is the preferred destination for the relocation of businesses at Virginia Airport if plans being formulated by the eThekwini Municipality bear fruit.

Operators say they will be happy to move to King Shaka, but if the council gives the thumbs up to Scott-burgh airfield, they will fight tooth and nail in court.

Scottburgh was simply too far from Durban and too unsafe to make it viable for their clients.

If all proceeds smoothly, tenants at Virginia Airport will wind up operations by December 2018. To avoid court action by tenants, who’ve said the council has an agreement to renew their leases for another 10 years, tenants will be offered incentives to move to the new site.

The preferred location is King Shaka, but if that proves impossible for financial or logistical reasons, Scottburgh is next on the list, followed by Pietermaritzburg.

These facts are contained in the report commissioned on the viability of Virginia Airport by eThekwini Municipality and compiled by Royal Haskoning DHV. The Sunday Tribune has seen a copy.

The King Shaka option has got the green light, but the city will need to attract significant private funding to pay for alterations to the airfield, although it will foot the bill for basic infrastructure.

DA ward 36 councillor Shaun Ryley said he lamented “the dragging out” of the matter. “Stakeholders and interested parties should have been briefed immediately after the report was presented to the city in the middle of last year. Instead, the city manager produced his own condensed version and submitted recommendations to the executive committee before stakeholders were informed.

“Stakeholders were consulted only in February and even then the report was not made available to them.”

The report posed two scenarios, options A and B. The first involved renewing the leases at Virginia Airport for a lengthy period. The research team said this would not be ideal as it would result in a gradual migration of aviation business to King Shaka International Airport, the loss of private pilot training to competition elsewhere in the country and the lowering of the financial viability of Virginia Airport until the inevitable decision was made to close the airport.

Option B has been approved. It entails splitting the solutions for business aviation and general aviation, concluding that since there are already plans to move business aviation to King Shaka International, the installation of facilities at that airport would expedite the process. The existing runway at King Shaka can accommodate all business aviation activities.

Weighing up the benefits of Dube TradePort against those of either Pietermaritzburg or Scottburgh for the new general aviation facility, the report concluded that not only was Dube more convenient for the people of Durban, but it already had the acceptance of the general aviation community.

Possible drawbacks include the fact that the existing King Shaka runway would not satisfy all the general aviation requirements and a new facility similar to the current Virginia runway would need to be built. This would require funding and the approval of a number of key role players.

Should money not be made available from the private sector to co-fund the development, the second option would be Pietermaritzburg.

While Pietermaritzburg has all the necessary facilities, the council believes it would be an unpopular choice that would “be met with fierce opposition” and would probably lead to the loss of jobs associated with training and recreational flying.

The report says Scottburgh would be a viable compromise because it is much closer to Durban and has a grass airstrip similar in length to that at Virginia.

“Its location next to the Scottburgh Mall provides opportunities for a mini aero-city development on the South Coast,” states the report.

The consensus among general aviation operators at Virginia Airport is that if they have to move, King Shaka International is the only viable option.

“Otherwise we’ll go the legal route,” said Melanie Jordaan, part-owner of KZN Aviation, a fixed wing and helicopter charter company at Virginia.

Jordaan said she expected eThekwini Municipality to carry the cost of infrastructure if they were moved. “We are all set up at Virginia, so why should we settle for anything less?”

No option

Peter Henderson of Jet Afrique said Virginia tenants had met Sithole late last year and it had been agreed any deal must be a win-win for the city and operators.

“We’ll fight all the way if we are moved anywhere other than King Shaka,” he said.

“Scottburgh is not an option. Just a look at the layout indicates it won’t work. Flight training could go there, but commercial aviation can only operate out of King Shaka.”

Dimitru Papageorge, the owner of North East Helicopters, agreed it was time to go. “This is prime residential land. It’s time to move. An airport must be away from residential areas, for safety reasons.

Neville Hart, who rents hangar space at Virginia, said sport aviation would die if it moved to Scottburgh.

“Scottburgh’s airstrip is dangerous. I would land there only in an emergency. If a runway is built parallel to the main strip at King Shaka, we will be fine”.

And what will become of Virginia? If the council has its way the land (29.6 hectares) will be redeveloped as a high residential mix, medium residential mix, retail and office mix or high leisure mix.

Whichever option is selected, the report says the total area covered would not exceed 99 470m2.

While tenants at Virginia make tough decisions on their future, the report has recommended: the council initiate discussions with Dube TradePort; that an environmental impact assessment be conducted; that negotiations begin with the Airports Company SA; that an application be lodged with the Air Traffic and Navigation Service to move the general flying area to a place more appropriate to the new site; and that potential private sector funders be sought for the new development.

Sunday Tribune