It’s a relatively cool day and I’m lucky enough to be sitting on a bench waiting for the next flight to Joburg. The next one is in about an hour and I thought it would be an ideal time to really reflect on the experience here at Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport. The purpose of my visit was to attend the Transport Forum Special Interest Group. But I sort of pulled off a double whammy by suckling on the airport review end of things — no technical specifics though.
On arrival from OR Tambo I was rather surprised that the flight felt so brief. It was my first time in a small jet and the 35min in air and the bite size snacks just made the trip vanish with the view. At first glance I was shocked by the size: ‘it’s so tiny’ I thought. Until the aircraft turned and brought the airport into view. By the time passengers put their feet foot on the Nelspruit-ish soil, the mountain view, the traditional thatch form and the landscapes just came to view. Translated as an appropriate welcome to the Game Reserve themes, this regional airport had clear signage and an awkward tarmac welcome. It felt like the gateway was a gaping hippo and made the rhino in view seem amateur. What simple architecture is this? OR Tambo or Cape Town International are incapable of realizing this type of tactile quality.
The wood, green and moody moist air felt prepared and well maintained. Glass reflects the green planetarium-type awe coming from a flat space like the North West, or Urban juncture like Johannesburg. The rhino still caught my eye: guarded and awake — probably worth climbing and selfie sticking on. My gut was accurate, this is a very different type of quality in experience — a tourist and patriotic flair burning life into an emerging region. What concerns me is the result of increasing traffic and the potential losses in this quality over time. Keeping an earthly authenticity for a few hundred thousand passengers per month is most probably going to be difficult.
The interior design of this airport, in particular, is simple and old-school. Lots of large stone and concrete slabbing. Thatch breathes here and the brown tones just continue in various contrasts and advertising is limited — less annoying really. Where there is any, it fades into the abyss and curves behind corners and only a deliberate glimpse would lend an eye. A coffee shop, some furniture and souvenir stores linger around — competing with the malls and street vendors just 14km away.
For a business traveler, I’m missing the charging points and other relaxing amenities in plain sight. Those spaces to pull the laptop out and draft something unique and interesting. These spaces are only available after checking in, and are only a light offering — very little design effort put in. Most passengers accurately arrive an hour before, but the welcoming ideal of free wifi is not an obvious feature and requires a log-in Q&A with the help desk.
For a tourist, the bar and restaurant type aura exists and there’s some real room to lounge around and keep the legs up. But the missing bite of entertainment or live music, arts and craft action is a missed opportunity — especially for local businesses.
This is more of an operational issue: sidewalks really do something magical at airports. They tell frequent flyers and guests that they were part of the plan. Small things like art work, more natural lighting and pot plants inside just shake the place up a bit. A splash of red, a blast of black some white here and there would take our minds off the raw rocky monotony that is as repetitive as the design of signage. Most passengers would not notice this though, until its different. The other thing worth noting is the silence: all I heard was the mechanical belts chiming, beeps from drones and birds somewhere off in the distance. The VIP Lounge adds a unique feel to the light airport, if it was open to the public it would be put in more detail.
It’s okay to pass the port around here, car rentals are just outside, the air is clean and uncluttered and interesting. Employees don’t seem to have public transport up to the airport — 30 min outside of the city — so they hike around along the way. Shops open after the earliest flight which is a profit risk and passengers, like me, opt to come a little later or divert their breakfast spending to hotels or the next airport. One thing worth appreciating, and should be highlighted is the fact that the aircraft is visible as it lands, approaches and prepares to board passengers — probably the coolest feature around. Lastly, since it’s such a short trip our, there are no rental cars which bike racks attached and the airline (SA Airlink) doesn’t seem to have the facilities for bikes — a much needed effort. I just need much more of this than an office.
Time to board.