Load Shedding Throws South African Airports into Turmoil Yet Again

Load shedding has once again become a big problem for airports in South Africa. On the 5th of March, the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) announced that low jet fuel supply reserves at Cape Town International Airport (CTIA) had been restored after load shedding stalled the airport’s largest supplier. While jet fuel supply is now stable, it is being closely monitored to prevent cancellations and minimize disruptions. Travellers are still advised to keep a watch on their flight schedules.

This shortage of jet fuel highlighted the fragility of the jet fuel supply at two of the biggest airports in South Africa, CTIA and Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport (ORTIA). The outgoing minister of transport, Fikile Mbalula, responding to a recent parliamentary Q&A, stated that fuel shortages at the two major airports have been caused by delays in the import of crude oil, a lack of buffer stock and delayed shipments, among other things, since March 2022.

One of the primary issues is the overreliance on importation. According to the minister, South Africa has lost significant jet fuel refining capacity over the past few years – from five refineries to only one – meaning that there is more reliance on imported fuel. At CTIA, for example, the single refinery servicing the airport is not fully operational, meaning that 100% of jet fuel is imported. The fuel is also transported over large distances, from refinery to storage tanks via road tankers and then via the airport hydrant system into the plane.

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ORTIA receives the bulk (70%) of its fuel from the inland Natref refinery via a pipeline and the remaining 30% from Durban via rail. The minister also mentioned that there is neither strategic stock nor significant buffer stock of jet fuel held in the country, which means the jet fuel supply operates largely on a just-in-time system – with only about five days of buffer stock held at the airport storage tanks.

Load shedding by Eskom, which recently announced that generating unit each at Camden, Duvha, and Majuba and two other units at Kriel broke down and were taken offline for repairs in the last 24 hours, is exacerbating the situation. The return to service of a generating unit each at Hendrina, Medupi, and Tutuka was also delayed, prompting the company to push rolling blackouts to stage 4 for the week.

The shortage of jet fuel at CTIA is not a new issue; the airport faced a similar problem between 30 September and 7 October last year, where a fuel shipment to the refinery was delayed. Due to the limited buffer stock, this impacted the supply to airlines.

In conclusion, the overreliance on imported fuel, lack of buffer stock, and delayed shipments have caused a shortage of jet fuel at two of the biggest airports in South Africa. Load shedding has exacerbated the situation, and the country’s fragile jet fuel supply chain is impacting the operations of airlines at these airports.