Providing a safe haven for the world’s surplus aircraft could be a bonanza for sleepy town.
Upington’s hot, dry climate could be a windfall for its fiscally challenged infrastructure. The economically depressed Northern Cape town is on the brink of a mini boom — if bureaucracy can be overcome.
The Airports Company SA, in a bid to turn around its annual loss of about R2.5- million at the little-used airport, is converting its spare capacity into parking and storage space for under-utilised airliners from Europe and Africa.
“Since we started with the programme about five months ago, we have generated R1-million in profits and attracted 25 aircraft from Europe and Africa with a book value of about 400-million,” said airport manager Esmaralda Barnes.
Because of the economic downturn, more aircraft are being put into storage. Europe is running out of parking space, and the Northern Cape is proving an ideal destination.
“Upington is probably the best place in the world to park aircraft. Europe’s wet weather is conducive to rust. The US rate for mothballing is 1000 a month. We charge about a third of that and are attracting increasing interest from foreign carriers looking to park airliners until the world economy improves.”
She said once a R35-million revamp of the airport was complete, parking space for about 350 aircraft on a 50ha site would become available.
But Barnes said the outdated system whereby import taxes were levied on the aircraft — and repaid once they left the country — should be scrapped.
“ There should not be a need for the tax in the first place. This situation, unnecessary and onerous, should be reviewed to free up the business and help it to grow to its full potential,” she said.
At the coalface of the operation is Tubby van Heerden, maintenance supervisor of Nevergreen Aircraft Industries, whose job it is to care for the aircraft.
“We offer airlines three options. Firstly, there is the short-term parking and mooring of the aircraft, then medium- to long- term storage until they are returned to service or sold off, followed by a third phase.. where the aircraft is broken up for spares, like engines and instruments, and scrap metal.”
He said the service was more like a second-hand car lot than a scrapyard.
“We have to protect this equipment and need licensed engineers to monitor and keep records of all the work done. The aircraft have to be in mint condition when offered for sale or returned to service, whether they have been parked for a couple of weeks or several years,” he said.
Checks are carried out on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, as well as a major inspection every 90 days.
Long-term parking includes the draining of oils and hydraulics, and replacing these with protective inhibiting oils, monitoring moisture levels, taping up windows, removing sensitive instruments, cleaning and covering seats and carpets, as well as applying abrasive-resistant and grease-proof wrapping to sensitive exposed areas.
“We also start the onboard auxiliary power units to make sure they are operational, rotate tyres, grease moving parts and generally make sure the aircraft is ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
“We have also had to become innovative when it comes to finding the right materials to protect the aircraft,” Van Heerden said.
For example, covers were needed for engine intakes and exhausts to stop birds nesting in them.
“I designed an inflatable ‘tube’ that fits all of the engines and works like a dream,” said Van Heerden.
He says long-term parking is mostly technical work, but breaking up the aircraft can become “extremely labour-intensive”, potentially providing jobs for hundreds of unskilled people.
The airport’s 6km runway, which is designated as the fourth diversion site in the world for Nasa shuttles in case of an emergency, can support even the largest of aircraft like Boeing 747s, making arrivals and departures to and from the rest of the world a breeze.