SA airport queen spreads her wings

Bongiwe Pityi SA airport queen spreads her wings

After King Shaka triumph, it’s off to tackle Brazil’s World Cup project

Moving an international airport 60km to a new home on the eve of the world’s biggest soccer tournament should provide enough ­adrenaline to last a lifetime.

But Bongiwe Pityi, who is the ­deputy director of airport operations for Airports Company SA ­(Acsa), is ready for another adventure: she is taking her World Cup ­experience to 2014 hosts Brazil.

Pityi is guiding Brazil’s biggest ­airport, Guarulhos International Airport near São Paulo, through a massive upgrade and extension ahead of next year’s June 12 kickoff.

When Pityi and her team moved Durban International to its new home at King Shaka, they made South African aviation history.

It was down to the wire. After arduous preparation, the move happened in eight hours and Acsa’s team was ready for the first flight at King Shaka, four minutes ahead of schedule.

Their work won Pityi an award last month in the State-Owned Enterprises category of the prestigious CEO Magazine’s awards for South Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government.

Now her focus is firmly on replicating her success in Brazil.

Acsa is a third partner in Guarulhos International Airport, which holds a 20-year concession contract with Brazil’s federal government to run the Guarulhos airport, and upgrade its passenger and cargo ­terminals.

Pityi’s job is to run this process while keeping the existing airport running – a major juggling act of ­people, aircraft and facilities.

“An airport is a complex structure involving various organisations, processes, facilities, systems and equipment,” she says.

“When additional facilities are being built at an airport, we undertake this work in a live environment while processing the same number of air traffic movements and large volumes of people passing through hourly.”

Last month’s award gave her a chance to visit home.

Back in São Paulo last week, she reflected on the particular challenges of her Brazilian assignment.

“Prior to my relocation to Brazil, I had not been exposed to Brazilian Portuguese,” she says.

“I am taking lessons, but given the fast pace of the project, I continue to rely on a translator.”

Not many people in São Paulo speak English, she explains, but “the people are extremely friendly and gravitate easily towards foreigners. This makes up for strained communications.”

Pityi is a serious team player, with a reputation for being able to motivate people around projects and ­ideas.

She’s also not scared to get her hands dirty and spent almost the entire two years of the King Shaka project working from a builder’s hut wearing boots, overalls and a construction helmet.

“Everything we achieved at King Shaka was a team effort. I am merely the face of the team. This task is the same: a team effort of which I am a member.”

She has no illusions about the tough months ahead of the World Cup.

“I love football. In 2010, I watched only one match at a stadium as I had to be at work most of the time. The same is likely to happen here in Brazil. I will be very lucky if I get the time off to watch a few live games.”

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