Time is running out to name the new airport as "pilots cannot fly to a place with no name", says national Minister of Transport S'bu Ndebele.

He has called on the KwaZulu-Natal government to send him submissions for a proposed name for the airport at La Mercy, stressing that once it is received, there was still a long process that had to be followed, including a 30-day objection period, before the national Cabinet officially announced the new name.

Even then the naming process will not be complete until the International Civil Aviation Organisation has decided on a code to be used by the international aviation community, including pilots and travel agencies.

Speaking during a tour of the new airport yesterday, Ndebele - the former KZN premier - recalled that the name of the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg was formally announced in the Government Gazette on June 30, 2006 and the change was implemented at the end of October when new signs were unveiled.

"La Mercy is a new airport, a greenfield project. Renaming becomes even more urgent because, internationally, they (pilots) cannot fly to a place with no name," he said.

The final draw for next year's Fifa Soccer World Cup was on December 4 and once countries knew where the first round matches would be played, travel agents would have to start booking tickets, he said.

"We therefore cannot afford not to be ready."

Since it was now October, the national Department of Transport was "running out of time as the airport has to start operating by next Easter", said Ndebele.

"We are therefore calling for the fast-tracking of this process from all sides to ensure we are ready for our first flight in 2010," he said.

Later, Monhla Hlahla, the managing director of the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA), said the naming of the airport was "critical" and the lead time for putting up signs was the end of November.

The public was recently asked to express its views on the name. While the provincial government and the eThekwini Municipality favour "King Shaka International Airport", the public was given the chance to say whether it supported the name or wanted another one.

Ndabezinhle Sibiya, spokesman for the KZN Premier, Zweli Mkhize, said from Dubai last night that the cabinet would be making a statement about the naming process soon.

Ndebele said the project, which cost more than R7 billion and had employed 8 000 people, represented South Africa's belief in the future.

When the airport was first spoken about in the l990s it had the support of all political parties but was still a foolhardy project. Now it made sense, he said.

It was important to build the airport as "the world is not waiting for us". The airline industry in South Africa and the world had grown significantly over the past 15 years, he said.