Maseko: man on a mission
South Africa's largest airport operator is on a mission and its CEO explains to Keith Mwanalushi the implications of doing business outside its borders and his response to how airports should deal with the growing threat of terrorism.
Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) is, arguably, the most lavish exhibitor at the annual Aviation Festival Africa event held in Johannesburg.
Not surprisingly, the pavilion is a hive of activity with ACSA executives engaging with airlines and international journalists.
On this occasion, ACSA chief executive, Bongani Maseko, was happy to discuss the company’s latest position on a numbers of issues, starting with international expansion.
“Let me start with Ghana,” he began. “By last year we had signed a cooperation agreement but now we have actually signed a technical agreement,” [with the Ghana Airports Company Limited GACL].
The Ghanaians are in the process of erecting a new international terminal at the main gateway in Accra. The new terminal, to be known as terminal three, is expected to take pressure off the existing two terminals, improve the existing on-ground infrastructure in line with growing international travel demand, and position the country as an attractive aviation hub in the sub-region.
“They asked for us to play a critical role in the project management, so we are obviously advising based on our experience in areas like information technology (IT), terminal operations, security and commercial management. So we physically have boots on the ground in Ghana,” Maseko explained.
The design and build concept is expected to handle up to five million passengers per year, according to GACL.
Maseko acknowledged that doing business in Africa is not always easy.
For instance, ACSA has been in discussion with the Government of Benin but, as a Francophone country, he pointed out that the language barrier was a very serious challenge. “We were meant to be helping them with the construction of an airport and, of course, they prefer to dialog in French.”
Maseko explained that it was a daunting task having to prepare the documents in English, then having to get them translated into French and then, after working on them, having to translate them back into English.
“Communication can be a challenge but Ghana, on the other hand, is English speaking. It has a stable economy so it is very easy to do business. We have found this to be the case in English speaking countries,” Maseko observed.
Several countries in Africa are already in the process or looking closely at modernising their airports. Maseko commended these efforts and advised them to pay particular attention to service standards. “You will often find that the airport manager is some bureaucrat from the department of transport who has never really run an airport before and then he or she will then have to try and improve the way in which we understand the frustrations of the passenger.”
Importantly, Maseko has advised airport operators to avoid building facilities that they do not need. “There is a country that we visited and they wanted some assistance with the development of an airport. They pulled out some drawings and we said hold on, you have two A380 stands. Why?” Based on the figures provided, the planned airport had a throughput equal to East London Airport, one of the ACSA network of domestic airports that doesn’t even have a wide-body.
He added: “What a lot of people equally don’t realise is that the cost of maintaining your airport to acceptable International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards is extremely high.”
Unlike more developed regions of the world, air transport is not uppermost in the minds of many African countries. Even in South Africa, Maseko admitted some challenges still exist, especially in other sectors of transport. “For us, [aviation] the government pretty much leaves us alone; we are not in trouble and we don’t need assistance.”
Maseko is a strong advocate for public private partnerships (PPP) as a funding model for a public infrastructure such as airports. As African airports are upgraded, significant financing challenges are envisaged requiring what many believe is private sector participation.
Resources from public sector and other developing agencies are limited and can only cover part of these financing needs.
“I think PPPs are a very good option for African airports,” Maseko stated. “You build airports that are fit for purpose but are aligned to a country strategy – that is equally important.”
It is also important to recognise the various forms of PPPs and it was widely acknowledged at the event in Johannesburg that some PPP projects also have inherent challenges and risks associated with them.
ACSA has doubled its stake in its Brazilian concession, Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo, from 10 to 20% as it seeks to increase revenues from non-aeronautical services. ACSA won a bid to develop and operate the Brazilian airport back in 2012.
However, Brazil’s economic growth is predicted to shrink to 2% this year, according to economic analysts. Maseko is fully aware of the problems facing the South American giant. “Everyone knows that Brazil is going through a very difficult time right now but we believe that it will pick up. The airport at Sao Paulo, despite the challenges, continues to be resilient, which is something very strange.
“Even in South Africa the economy is not doing that well but we have registered growth in both domestic and international traffic, which defies all logic,” Maseko continued.
Turning to other issues, a wave of terror has hit the aviation industry and airports around the world are a key target. Even as airports in Europe and North America have tightened their screening and security, some analysts have said that gaps in screening of employees and travellers in the Middle East and Africa are being exploited in a way that should cause airlines to have extra concerns about flying to those regions.
ACSA has officially stated that security measures at its airports are constantly monitored and reviewed to ensure that they meet both local and international legislative requirements and standards.
Maseko has discussed the topic at length with various stakeholders, including the Airports Council International (ACI), of which he is vice chair. “They have questioned the effectiveness of screening people before they get into the terminal,” he said.
This procedure is now present at a number of airports, including Brussels, following the attack on the Belgian airport earlier this year.
Maseko explained that having a crowd at the entrance of the terminal was more than enough to allow a terrorist to achieve their goal, without having to go through screening. He is unconvinced of its effectiveness.
“We would like to see more visible police that are able to react. The police, together with the security services, have information Airports don’t monitor terrorists,” he said.
He further explained that the likes of Interpol, security and intelligence services and their sharing of information will better help identify possible threats. “My job is to make sure that when you travel, you travel safely but airports are very public places and I’ve got no way of knowing that a person has harmful intentions.
“The police, security and intelligence services should be upping their game and know who is doing what and why. Everyone has a role to play,” Maseko declared.