It’s no secret that Africa is about to see a huge increase in the volume of commercial air traffic arriving at its airports. The continent’s infrastructure is underdeveloped at present, and many smaller airfields are vying to take over the gap in the market. Wonderboom airport in Pretoria is one of these.
Wonderboom Airport began operations in 1937 as the Wonderboom Farm Airstrip, serving as a military training base during the Second World War before returning to civilian control. It was extended in 1965 with the addition of a proper terminal building, and was upgraded in 1993 to the point where its runway could handle aircraft as large as the Boeing 737 and other commercial passenger jets.
Ownership passed to The City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality in 2000. Scheduled passenger flights to Cape Town and Durban began in October 2009, with the airport able to cope with 450 departing and 400 incoming passenger per hour.
The City of Tshwane has identified the Wonderboom National Airport as one of its most important strategic assets. Tshwane has recently completed a comprehensive development programme of the airport, aimed at maximising its value as an asset to the community. In particular, it was noted that around 25-30% of the passengers at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg were Pretoria residents, who had to commute across the country to reach an air travel hub.
Taking up demand
The demand is there for a commercial service. Airlink’s passenger flights have already been popular, to the point where the company has opened a sleek new business lounge at Wonderboom. Commercial and business class passengers make up the bulk of those travelling on the Airlink service, which began in August 2016.
At present, Wonderboom National Airport is largely used by charter flights, tour operators, aviation accessory stores, pilot and parachute training, aircraft parking and the emergency services. There have also been flight tests of various experimental military and civilian aircraft from the airport.
While all of these activities generate revenue, they aren’t true game-changers and they only generate small numbers of specialised employment opportunities. If the international expansion goes ahead, the site could be opened to full commercial status, providing travellers from Pretoria another alternative to OR Tambo.
Various plans have been floated for Wonderboom’s role in the Tshwane metropolitan area, including plans from late 2016 to use it as a logistics hub. Mayor Solly Msimanga was quoted as suggesting that the airport could be upgraded to a full logistics hub to assist in creating job opportunities in the surrounding area, focusing it on cargo deliveries for planned industrialisation of some areas of the city.
In October 2016 the city re-opened its campaign to get Wonderboom recognised as an international airport, opening Tshwane up to the international investment markets. The airport will also strengthen diplomatic links in Africa by providing a convenient air transport link for the numerous embassies and trade missions in the Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality and Pretoria.
Once the airport has international status, it will then provide space for a host of secondary businesses and functions, from developing real estate around it into commercial areas to generating revenue via the terminals and resource hubs alongside the runways. Wonderboom already has more than 200 established businesses on its premises, and it has the potential to expand further.
Other nearby developments are also being planned to support growth in the surrounding area, with a planned R10 billion waterfront around the Rainbow Junction shopping centre on the banks of the Apies river. Rainbow Junction will be a 4km long, 140 hectare stretch of waterfront land that will feature offices, retail areas, residential sectors and conferencing properties. The plan is to avoid the traditional urban sprawl that afflicts many of South Africa’s central business districts.
Smaller airports like Wonderboom exist all over the continent, and all hold the potential for considerable expansion. As standards of living rise and businesses become more developed, demand for both passenger and cargo capacity will increase. These airports hold the key to expanding Africa’s tourism, business and trade potential by providing international and potentially intercontinental travel links that bypass underdeveloped or non-existent road and rail routes as well as natural and political hazards.
If the Wonderboom development is successful and the local infrastructure can support a new hub appearing around the airport, the project could serve as a template for the development of other international transit hubs around the continent, opening up new ways into global markets.