Plea to put new airport on ice

Residents of suburbs and towns along the coast north of Durban have made a last-minute plea to the government to put the King Shaka Airport plan on hold until there is a better understanding of how noisy jet aircraft will disrupt lifestyles and investment in the area.

However, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report has already been handed to the national department of environmental affairs and tourism, which is under mounting political and financial pressure to give the final okay to the R6,8-billion international airport and trade port.

La Mercy Airport Environmental Forum spokesperson Richard Siedle argues that there is no urgency to build a new airport north of the city as the existing southern airport could be upgraded more cheaply to handle the expected flood of 2010 World Cup soccer fans.

Siedle wrote to the EIA consultants (the Institute of Natural Resources) in July, noting that the existing Durban International Airport could be upgraded at a cost of just R1,6-billion to cater for 2010.

He said that, according to a revised specialist report compiled by the TPS consultants group, the existing airport could be upgraded further at a total cost of R4,7-billion to cope with passenger growth until 2025.

These estimates should be compared with R6,8-billion for the first phase of the new airport at La Mercy, as well as a further R176-million that eThekwini Municipality ratepayers would have to pay for new electricity, water and sewage infrastructure around King Shaka.

"We believe the department of environmental affairs and other government departments need to make a proper comparison between building a new airport and upgrading the existing Durban airport before continuing the EIA process," he said.

Siedle said his forum represented the interests of Mount Edgecombe Country Club, Tongaat Civic Association, the Umdloti Ratepayers' and Residents' associations, Umdloti Coastal Conservancy, the Umhlanga and La Lucia Ratepayers' associations, Dolphin Coast Residents' and Ratepayers' Association and the Zimbali Management Association.

Forum members also have major concerns about the accuracy of the noise prediction models that were used to simulate jet aircraft impacts in north Durban residential areas.

According to Siedle, the measurements are based on computer model simulations, rather than on any "real" measurements of actual take-offs and landings.

It was disturbing, he said, that a limited number of actual aircraft-sound measurements taken at the existing Durban airport did not tally with the computer simulations of noise levels at King Shaka.

For example, actual measurements of an SAA Boeing 737 jet leaving Durban International showed that the aircraft produced sound readings of 80 decibels at a distance of 8km. By comparison, the EIA noise report predicted that the same aircraft would generate only 65 decibels at the same distance from King Shaka. And if the "real measurement" from the existing airport was superimposed on a map of northern Durban, the 80 decibel reading would almost reach Mt Edgecombe in the south and the Life Style Centre north of Ballito. A further concern was that the EIA specialist noise report seemed to regard ambient noise conditions and jet aircraft as having similar characteristics.

Thus, the noise impact of a guard sneezing at 60 decibel was likened to that of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet at a distance of 1km, "even though the aircraft noise is rattling the windows".

However, Institute of Natural Resources Executive Director Jenny Mitchell has defended the computer model noise prediction studies conducted by the EIA consultants.

"We used the only noise prediction model accepted by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and we were as conservative as possible in our projections," she said.

For example, she said the Institute of Natural Resources studies modelled the impact of the noisiest and oldest "Chapter II" aircraft. "I think we did a very good job."

Mitchell said forum members had asked that the actual noise reading from Durban International Airport be incorporated into the computer modelling.

But the Institute of Natural Resources felt it would be "professional suicide" to simply import noise data from a different part of the city into a highly complex modelling tool.

"There is just no way we can do what has been suggested."

However, she said the Institute of Natural Resources had recommended that the Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) install noise monitoring stations at King Shaka - a first for South Africa's airports.

Mitchell said the value of this proposal was that Acsa and airport neighbours would be in a better position to assess and debate the significance of noise impacts before future expansion phases at King Shaka.

She disagreed with suggestions by forum members that jet aircraft noise was a "fatal flaw" in the King Shaka plan.

"I don't think there are any fatal flaws to preclude the project, but noise is an issue in an area which is growing at a rapid rate and where real estate and tourism are very important."

Mitchell said the Institute of Natural Resources believed that noise impacts could be managed through more effective air traffic control measures.

She also said the presence of a large, globally-significant colony of barn swallows, which has sparked concern from international bird conservation groups, was not seen as an insurmountable issue.

According to Mitchell, collisions between swallows and jet aircraft could be avoided.

For example, the barn swallow movement patterns had been studied extensively over the past few years and it appeared that the birds were most active between 5pm and 5.45pm.

"There could be times in the morning and evening when aircraft may need to use the other runway. They might also need to circle the airport or increase the angle of takeoffs during this period.

"I think the whole issue is that they (Acsa) don't want the birds to leave the area, and in terms of risk analysis, Acsa is prepared to take that on and get a 24-hour radar system in place to monitor the movement of the swallows."

  • This article was originally published on page 1 of The Mercury on July 25, 2007