OR Tambo’s challenge for passengers likened to Durban port for shippers


Could South Africa’s major gateway – the Port of Durban - be headed in the same direction as OR Tambo as congestion and inefficiency force shippers to look at alternative hubs?

This opinion piece may be about passengers – but the underlying message rings equally true in a freight context.


On the way to nowhere – it is inevitable that OR Tambo loses its status as Africa’s most important hub.

Located near the tip of Africa, its geographic location could hardly be worse except for traffic between Asia and the east coast of South America.

Travellers from the north choose to fly over their destination in Africa and on to Johannesburg and then back to their destination because of OR Tambo’s user experience and its good connections.

But it is losing its position fast.

Since taking office as the Minister of Home Affairs,Malusi Gigaba has managed to destroy the user experience. Starting with the unabridged birth certificate fiasco and current directive to capture biometrics from all foreign travellers without adequate staffing, he has single-handedly made OR Tambo an airport to avoid.

Competing hubs must be delighted. It is not just the obvious ones like Nairobi and Addis Ababa, but also Mauritius, which is working flat out to be the gateway to Africa from the east. It is Dubai, Doha and Istanbul that are chiselling away very successfully at Johannesburg’s position.

Turkish Airlines now flies to over 50 countries in Africa. Smaller cities are also being served. Later this month Ethiopian Airlines will begin a service to Gaborone and Windhoek. Qatar started a service to Windhoek last month. Will Emirates be adding the new Victoria Falls airport to its network? All these passengers have had to transit through Johannesburg until now.

When KLM also starts its flights to Windhoek later this month, the people of Namibia will have a choice of a shorter direct flight to super-efficient Schiphol and a transfer anywhere in Europe, or a wait of up to three hours to clear immigration in Johannesburg, and a longer flying time.

Some countries in the sights of extremists are now taking biometrics on arrival. In South Africa it was introduced in July and is being done for security reasons and for a relatively few BRIC arrivals where the visa applicants could not apply in person overseas.

But Treasury has issued a directive to rein in government spending, so Home Affairs cannot employ the additional staff needed to gather the biometrics of 2,5 million foreign travellers that cross our borders in a month.

The hole in this security operation is enormous, with 79% of foreigners arriving in July doing so over land borders where no biometrics are collected.

Taking biometrics needs to stop immediately until they have the capacity to do so.

Someone needs to knock heads in this department, which is doing untold damage.

For instance, under pressure from a high-level inter-ministerial commission they have redrafted the regulations governing minors and unabridged birth certificates. But it has been done in such a way that it will have almost no positive impact. Changes have been made but ambiguity remains. So much so that the association representing the airlines, which are expected to enforce the regulations at point of departure, has said airlines will have no option but to continue to deny boarding to minors who are not carrying original UBCs.

Every day there are traumatic scenes in public around the world as check-in staff are compelled to deny boarding to one or more children in a family group. Home Affairs is either unaware or does not care.

It will be a scary downward cycle when traffic in the rest of Southern Africa moves away and airlines are forced to reduce their services to OR Tambo. The wonderful air capacity we now enjoy will shrink and, with it, many of the tourism jobs we are all counting on.

It is ironic that SA airports have recently partnered with Munich Airport to share information and experiences. So obsessed are they with the customer experience in Munich, that this week they announced a crowd thought-sourcing project, where people waiting in the security queue are encouraged to contribute ideas on improving processes and the like. The theme is “Who likes waiting…”

Dave Marsh is the Managing Director of Johannesburg-based Travel & Trade Publishing which publishes a number of specialist travel publications including this one.

More News