King Shaka

Image via Adobe Stock

May marks 10 years since Durban’s King Shaka International Airport was opened

It seems that moving the airport was the right thing for Durban.

King Shaka

Image via Adobe Stock

The airport opened to much fanfare, barely a month before the Soccer World Cup. It was the first greenfields airport in the country in more than 50 years, and it was mired in controversy from the beginning.

Durban International paves the way

Durban’s previous airport originally opened in the 1950s as Louis Botha (then renamed to Durban International in 1994). It replaced the Stamford Hill Aerodrome and was the first major airport for the area, fuelled by the growth of the city and its environs as the most important port in the country.

Over the next 20 years, it became apparent that at the rate the city was growing, a new airport would be needed in the future. The then provincial and national government identified a site at La Mercy, north of Durban, where the new airfield would be built. As far back as 1973, earthworks were carried out and certain systems were put in place in preparation for the move. Keeping the apartheid machine going and the cost of the border war with Angola, however, drained the coffers of the state and in 1982, it was declared that the La Mercy airport project had been permanently shelved, and that it would never be built.

The runway’s too short

In the interim, Louis Botha Airport (becoming Durban International) chugged along, growing at a decent pace each year. But it had its problems. First of all, the runway was too short. At 2,500m, a fully-laden Boeing 747 could not take off, which hampered the airport’s ability to offer international flights originating from Durban. This was marginalising Durban in terms of air connectivity when compared to Johannesburg and Cape Town, forcing passengers to connect via either of those cities. The Cape Town to Johannesburg air route remains one of the busiest air corridors in the world, while the “Golden Triangle” route between Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg is one of the most lucrative.

The existing runway was also hemmed in, to the north by the Umlazi Canal, to the south and west by the N2 freeway and industrial development, and to the east by oil refineries and other industry. This meant it could not be expanded without considerable expense. In addition, a study conducted showed that even with a longer runway and an expanded terminal building, Durban International would reach capacity by 2025. And so the shelved project at La Mercy started to receive renewed interest, even though the price tag would be considerable.

Birds of a feather

As much as Durban International was plagued with problems, so was the La Mercy site. Aside from the hefty cost, it was in the middle of nowhere. Umhlanga was a hamlet at the time, Ballito even smaller, and there was no access off the N2, which wasn’t even a freeway in the vicinity when the project was first mooted.

And what about the swallows? The Mount Moreland area, just to the south of the airport site, is a nesting ground for barn swallows. The proposed alignment of the runway would put the swallows in the direct glide path of planes landing from the south, which would not only have decimated the birds but could also prove hazardous to aircraft. The 2009 incident where a US Airways jet had to cash land in the Hudson River in New York after enduring a bird strike after take-off from La Guardia was a famous case in point.

The Soccer World Cup pushes it over the edge

But then came the announcement in 2004 that South Africa would host the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Wouldn’t a shiny new airport in South Africa’s third-largest city be a welcoming site for the tens of thousands of foreign tourists descending on our shores? The project had gained too much momentum by then to be stopped. Fuelled by the efforts of the KZN provincial government and the municipality of eThekwini (Durban), who were on a joint mission to grow the local economy and boost tourism, the final hurdle was the environmental impact assessment, to determine how the airport would affect the area, including the barn swallows. The environmental study was concluded and the airport was given the go-ahead in August 2007, with the understanding that special radar would be put in place to monitor the movements of the barn swallows, and aircraft glide paths and times of arrival and departure would be shifted to accommodate the most intense periods of bird activity.

A period of feverish building took place between August 2007 and May 2010 – less than three years – to build the R7 billion airport virtually from scratch. It was a lot cheaper than the R26 billion Gautrain project or the R25 billion Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (also being built at the same time), but a lot more expensive than the glittering new stadiums in Cape Town and Durban, themselves each costing well in excess of R1 billion.

The king of the Zulu people lends his name

While La Mercy had always been the airport’s unofficial name, based on its location, it was proposed that the airport should be called King Shaka, after the famous leader of a very proud Zulu nation. A small hiccup involving procedural red tape almost scuppered the name, but the airport was officially christened as King Shaka International Airport. On 30 April 2007, the final flights left Durban International for the last time. From 1 May, King Shaka inherited Durban’s airport code (DUR), and the crown in the city’s aviation jewel was born.

Durban has never looked back

Lamentations and protestations followed from the Durban South industrial basin as well as the southern areas of Amanzimtoti and Kingsburgh, who had lost such a conveniently located airport just a short drive from the Durban CBD. King Shaka, by comparison, is 35km north of central Durban, and more than 60km from the old airport, which was a problem for workers and staff. Rumours did the rounds that the site would be retained as a second airport for Durban a la Lanseria in Johannesburg, but nothing came of this.

Although not cast in stone, the site has been earmarked for a new dug-out port to alleviate the constraints of the original Durban harbour, still by far the busiest port in the country. Southern Africa’s growth demands it.

And 10 years on, there can be no doubt that the move was a very good one for Durban. The adjacent Dube Trade Port also strengthens the airport node. In the past 20 years, Umhlanga has become the de facto CBD of Durban, while Ballito, although technically part of KwaDukuza and just outside the eThekwini (Durban) Metro, forms the northern end of an arc of growth stretching all the way from Umhlanga past the airport next to the spine of the N2. This is Durban’s new growth point, with the airport slap bang in the middle of it.

King Shaka also put the city back on the international aviation map. With a much longer 3,400m runway, and the space to build another if needed, DUR drew a flock of new airlines offering direct service to Dubai, Doha, Istanbul and London. Durban, no longer a sleepy little parochial holiday dorp on the east coast, had finally come of age.