The blue sky economy: preparing for take-off

Rudi Kimmie (PhD) is the interim Director of the Aerotropolis Institute Africa. He writes in his personal capacity. Picture: Supplied

Rudi Kimmie (PhD) is the interim Director of the Aerotropolis Institute Africa. He writes in his personal capacity. Picture: Supplied

Published Apr 15, 2024



‘Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for take-off’. These are words we usually hear in an aeroplane as it gathers pace on the runway to take us to faraway destinations. And with a resurgence in the aviation sector, there might be many ‘take-offs’ to new economic growth opportunities in the near future.

We have already noticed that South African tourism figures are on the increase (Cape Town’s 2023 domestic tourism numbers are 20% up from 2022), a new airport is being planned in the Cape Winelands, and despite the SAA - Takatso deal being cancelled, the national carrier is still airborne and building new international flight routes.

Aviation is the internet of the sky. It is globalisation in action. It connects us in person with loved ones and business colleagues, and takes us to exotic destinations for our vacations. It is no wonder that the Middle East and China are investing billions in airport infrastructure. It’s even reported that Saudi Arabia is planning to build one of the largest airports in the world by 2030 and is gearing up to process over 120 million passengers per annum.

The commercial benefits of revamped airports and aviation in general are immense. With sea piracy still a threat off the east and west coasts of Africa, the Houthis launching attacks in the Red Sea, and local ports unable to process cargo timeously, there will be greater reliance on air transportation.

Who can forget the ‘air bridge’ between Turkey, Iran and Qatar when Qatar was blockaded by its neighbours? This air bridge played a vital role in ensuring Qatar’s sustainability. But beyond the movement of aeroplanes, airports are being repurposed to become more than runways where aeroplanes land and take off.

Airports are increasingly becoming commercial hubs, integrating hotels, retail and leisure spaces into the aerospace environment.

Yet, when we cast our minds back four years ago this ‘blue sky’ economy was in dire straits. It was heavily impacted during the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns. Our domestic airlines, Kulula, Mango and SAA were casualties of these and few could predict how the industry would recover post-Covid.

But as soon as the lockdowns were lifted, the ‘blue sky’ economy was one of the sectors that recovered the fastest. This was the result of pent-up and frustrated tourists rushing to escape being cooped up and trying to regain some normalcy in their lives.

Leveraging the aviation sector and in particular airport infrastructure as catalytic levers for economic growth is not new.

According to aviation expert and proponent of the aerotropolis (airport city concept) John Kasarda (airport business consultant and faculty member at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School), "Airports will shape business location and urban development in the 21st century as much as highways did in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th and seaports in the 18th".

Hence the aerotropolis concept is rapidly shaping airport infrastructure around the world where land use - residential, industrial and commercial nodes are centred around an airport. This contributes to rapid turnaround for the transportation of goods and people.

On the local front, South Africa is in sync with the rest of the world. Taking a cue from Kasarda as early as 2015, KZN’s Economic Development Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA) department formulated the Durban Aerotropolis Master Plan.

Based on global best practice and using the aviation sector as a strategic economic lever, the plan envisaged leveraging off the significant progress made at the Dube TradePort, the Special Economic Zone industrial precinct whose purpose is to drive competitive and world-class industrial development and facilitate both domestic and foreign direct investment into KwaZulu-Natal.

The Durban Aerotropolis Master Plan was followed by a partnership with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) which resulted in the establishment of the Aerotropolis Institute Africa (AIA), a catalytic, multi-disciplinary research and knowledge institute based at UKZN. This joint-venture aims to tap the knowledge resources of a multi-disciplinary knowledge institution and integrate this with the economic objectives of the aerotropolis.

However, airports on their own are not sufficient to stimulate economic growth. An airport operates within an ecosystem of interrelated commercial and government entities within which local government is a strategic partner. And since innovation, agility, efficiency, governance, relevant skills and sustainability are key drivers within the modern economy, it’s vitally important that all stakeholders embody these attributes in their operations.

The Durban Aerotropolis Master Plan presents a unique opportunity to bring a new economic vision to KZN. This should be inclusive for all stakeholders to benefit - academic institutions to explore new career pathways for graduates, as well as civil society and local government, to benefit from the tourism spend at retail and hospitality facilities.

‘Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for take-off’ therefore is also a rallying call for the city with all its diverse entities and citizens to support and enable the aerotropolis concept for economic take-off.

Rudi Kimmie (PhD) is the interim director of the Aerotropolis Institute Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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