WATCH | First woman manager of EL's King Phalo Airport aims to take it on an upward trajectory

King Phalo Airport Manager Nicola Smith.
King Phalo Airport Manager Nicola Smith.
Image: MARK ANDREWS

Nicola Smith, the first woman to manage King Phalo Airport — formerly the East London Airport — has landed with flaps down and all wheels turning.

She has been in East London for just more than a month and wants her tenure to bring about a positive change.

Smith said she was responsible for driving a well-organised end-to-end operation, to ensure the highest level of customer service and an improved airport experience.

This also entailed building and maintaining healthy and diverse internal and external relationships.

“This is besides the day-to-day operational oversight, infrastructure and people-management that I do with a highly skilled and professional team,” she said.

Nicola Smith, the first woman to manage King Phalo Airport.

Smith matriculated from uThongathi High School in KwaZulu-Natal in 1990, and then began studying business management at Varsity College in Durban.

But in her heart, it was not for her and she halted her studies in her second year.

Instead, she dreamed of becoming a flight attendant but did not know where to start.

 “I used to take flights from Durban International Airport to Matshapa Airport in Eswatini to visit my family while I was at high school.

“Every time I boarded a flight, I felt like, this is where I belong.

“Though I am originally from Eswatini, I have spent most of my life in SA.”

Her foray into aviation was by chance, or providence, in 1995.

“One day, I had taken a flight from Durban to Johannesburg to visit a friend, and happened to be smartly dressed.

“Apparently there were interviews going on [in Johannesburg] and a woman there thought I was an interviewee.

“She said I should take part and I took that chance. And what do you know? I got the job!” 

Smith got to travel the world with SAA on international routes, and said some of her favourite destinations included New York, Lagos and Ghana.

“There’s a certain vibe about New York, and with Ghana and Lagos it’s the culture.

“I have made a lot of friends in the African countries I have travelled to.”

A chance stint to assist with data capturing for a month led her to a new job at SAA.

“I thought, would I rather serve chicken or beef on a flight or try something new? I grabbed the opportunity.”

Smith said she had a passion to learn everything she could about aviation.

“When I was data capturing, I used to ask what it is I am capturing — I had a lot of questions.

“Reading those flight safety reports ignited a desire to know more about operations, particularly aviation ground safety.

“I went on every aviation safety course that was available, eventually obtaining a diploma in airline safety management, going on to obtain accreditation in international airport management.

“It was not easy. Hard work and commitment are essential.

“Having mentors was important.

“Dare I say, if it wasn’t for my mentors Cobus Toerien and Douw Smuts, I do not think I would be where I am today.

“I met them when I began my career in the aviation safety department

“I was young. They were patient. I was like a sponge. I wanted to learn, and I wanted to enter this discipline that didn’t have many women.”

I was young. They were patient. I was like a sponge. I wanted to learn, and I wanted to enter this discipline that didn’t have many women.

Looking poignantly at a picture of an SAA aircraft in her office, Smith says the company is her home. It grounded her.

Smith stayed with SAA for 12 years, before joining ACSA in 2008.

“The company exposed me to many aspects of life and groomed me. Travelling opened my eyes.”

Since then, she says ACSA was leading by example with seven of its nine airports run by women.

She also credits her travel bug to her casino manager mother.

“I used to go visit my mom when she lived in Turkey when she managed a casino there.

“She would say that education and travel were the means for one to go anywhere.”

She said of the pandemic: “2020 pulled the carpet from under the industry’s feet — a once buzzing industry was almost brought to its knees.”

Smith has joined King Phalo Airport after running the Kimberly airport for two years, during which time it won an airport service quality (ASQ) award.

Her short-term plan for King Phalo is to grow air travel to support tourism and trade.

“King Phalo Airport has experienced the fastest growth in SA post lockdown.

“Passenger arrivals have grown by 34%. Other airports growth is less than 10%.

King Phalo Airport has experienced the fastest growth in SA post lockdown. Passenger arrivals have grown by 34%. Other airports growth is less than 10%.

“There is great potential in this region.

“My focus is to analyse the air transportation needs of the Buffalo City region and review plans meant for implementation before the pandemic.”

While exciting overseas travel has been a big part of her life, Smith enjoys the simple things in life.

As a single mom, she said: “I have two children, a son of 20 and a daughter of nine.

“When I not managing an airport, I am spending time with them and with my family.

“I do go to the gym to de-stress or walk regularly.

“Family get-togethers require lots of cooking, however my forte is décor and setting the scene for the event.

“My mom always says every day is special and that’s how I approach life.”

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