Setting the Bar High


O.R. Tambo International Airport has undergone plenty of change in the past few years, to the extent that it’s now considered, arguably, the top airport in Africa. Chris Waldburger takes a tour of the imposing facility, to see what all the fuss is about and to find out how best to use it.

If South Africa is the gateway to the emerging markets of Africa, then O.R. Tambo International Airport is surely the gate itself – hinged upon Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest urban economy, the city of Johannesburg. With approximately 20 million passengers passing through every year, across 55 different airlines, O.R. Tambo International is the busiest airport in Africa, and in October 2006 was renamed after African National Congress stalwart Oliver Tambo, having previously been known as Johannesburg International.

It’s been a busy few years for ORTIA, not least of which considering the volume of work completed in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. As a result, there has been plenty of focus on the airport and with it, some recognition of the changes and improvements made. 2011 has seen ORTIA win the Skytrax Award for the ‘Best Airport in Africa’. Skytrax, a globally recognised research organisation for the air transport industry, bases this award on passenger reviews, and, according to Unathi Batyashe-Fillis, communications manager for the airport, the award may be a tribute not only to the airport’s efficiency, but also to the atmosphere within its confines. She believes that, internally, the airport “pulses with life, just like a city”.

In line with this city spirit, and, as already mentioned, the airport has undergone a massive upgrade – an upgrade akin to an urban renewal, and an upgrade which has given O.R. Tambo recognition alongside the world’s leading airports.

“In the last five years we have developed an international pier, improved our central terminal building, re-structured a multi-storey parkade, and upgraded our main terminal”, says Batyashe-Fillis. “This has increased our capacity by eight million passengers per annum”.

Batyashe-Fillis also points out that, over and above its size, there are a number of factors that make the airport unique. These factors have all emerged as a result of a nationwide investment in transport and infrastructure.

“In addition to renewed infrastructure, we have introduced new technologies, such as our self-service kiosks where passengers can check in by themselves, as well as new common-use terminal equipment, which allows any airline to check in any passenger. There is now no need for designated international and domestic terminals [for this reason the terminals are now simply known as A and B].”

Alongside these access services, O.R. Tambo is also the only airport in Africa that has scheduled traffic for the world’s largest commercial passage aircraft, the Airbus A380, which is currently operated by Lufthansa and Air France, and will include Emirates in the near future.

There are also over 130 retail shops on site, all of which means O.R. Tambo, in partnership with South Africa’s other airports, generates over 4% of South Africa’s annual GDP, while employing over 18 000 people.

“These innovations were motivated simply by a desire to measure ourselves constantly against global best practice”, explains Batyashe-Fillis, “but at the same time, knowing that we would facilitate travel for at least 24 of the 32 participants in the FIFA World Cup of 2010, it was important for us to ensure we had the correct infrastructure and manpower to manage the increased volume”.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that O.R. Tambo International, as the central hub of transport for the World Cup, was one of the key factors in making the tournament the global success it so evidently was.

Post-World Cup, arguably the airport’s most exciting new feature is the Gautrain – the rapid transit rail system which connects the airport with Johannesburg and Pretoria, and alleviates the heavily congested traffic zone, whilst also providing a service that makes a commute to Johannesburg that much more feasible, in terms of time.

Batyashe-Fillis explains that this alone assists in placing O.R. Tambo on the same level as the world’s biggest airports.

“The Gautrain has improved accessibility for many passengers. They come from a position where before they only had road options as a means of travel to the airport, to their current position where high-speed rail is now a definite option. Most global airports have rail transportation, so the existence of the Gautrain has further placed this airport as a global competitor”.

The existence of the Gautrain means that a commuter can board the train from within the airport, and arrive in Sandton within fifteen minutes, travelling at speeds of up to 180 km/hr. The journey from the airport to Pretoria takes approximately forty-five minutes, with passengers required to change at the Malboro station. With trains leaving every 12 minutes during peak times, the efficiency of flying into Johannesburg and conducting business on the run has been improved tenfold.

But, more than that, if you’ve got a bit more time on your hands or are forced within the confines of the airport precinct for a protracted period of time, there is so much more at one’s disposal – making O.R. Tambo the ‘pulsating city’ that Batyashe-Fillis speaks of, in terms of options available to the business traveller.

Hotels and Conferencing

Fifty metres from both arrivals and departures is the InterContinental O.R. Tambo Airport, opposite Terminal B. The hotel has 138 rooms, and offers convenience in a luxurious setting. The hotel has free unlimited Wi-Fi, quiet, soundproofed rooms, quick check-in and a host of services designed to meet the needs of the modern business traveller. They include state-of-the-art gym, heated pool, steam rooms and spa, business centre, concierge desk, eight different conference rooms and a fine-dining restaurant. 500 metres from the airport is the Southern Sun, which offers 366 rooms, fine dining, and a state-of-the-art international business centre, with all the requisite services, and eight different conference venues.

A few minutes drive away is Emperors Palace, a casino and entertainment complex that is also home to four hotels – the 5-star D’oreale Grande, the 4-star Mondior, the 3-star Metcourt Suites and the 3-star Metcourt. Facilities at these properties include complimentary airport shuttle service, tennis courts, swimming pool, gym, spa, a host of bars and restaurants, Wi-Fi in public areas, as well as access to the casino, cinema and theatre and conference facilities for up to 3000 people.

Also big in the conferencing space, in this area, is the 4-star Birchwood Hotel and OR Tambo Conference Centre, seven kilometres from the airport. The hotel is set on 40 acres of gardens and offers 60 meeting venues (catering for up to 5000 people), alongside 665 rooms. Additional facilities include spa, gym, squash court, pool, onsite car hire and complimentary airport shuttle. The conferencing is well-managed with each room equipped with all the necessary technology, and, combined with its quick access to the airport, this makes the Birchwood an affordable and pleasant option for business purposes.

Five minutes’ drive from the airport is the City Lodge, which offers the traveller an affordable option for overnight stay, with perks such as a gym, pool and meeting room. An additional option, three kilometres away, is the OR Tambo Garden Court, a convenient and unpretentious stop-over, complete with ample conferencing facilities. If ‘immediate’ conferencing is what you are looking for and time is not on your side, then the airport itself has some options, for the business traveller who needs to fly in, meet and depart. The Premier Conference Centre is in Terminal B, and offers three 10-seater rooms, a 12-seater room, a 14-seater room, a seminar facility for groups of 25 or 50, as well as a conference room for groups of 60 or 120. 

Car Rental Transport

The O.R. Tambo multi-storey parkade is opposite Terminal B, and there you will find eight car rental kiosks, representing Avis, Tempest, Budget, Europcar, First, Hertz, National and Thrifty. Accredited taxi operators are available just outside both terminals (this can be a pricey option), while the hotel shuttles are accessible just outside Terminal A. A citywide bus service also operates from the ground level of Terminal B.


There is easily accessible pick-up-and-go as well as drop-and-go parking outside the terminals, while the first fifteen minutes of parking within the parkades is free. Just a word of warning – at certain peak times, the pick-up-and-go/drop areas can become quite congested. With regards to short-term parking, the airport’s website – – is useful for assessing availability and access, as well as for calculating cost.

For long-term, or low-cost parking, there’s a facility available on Griffiths Road, just off the R21 highway, a few minutes drive from O.R. Tambo. The airport has a valet service, which also offers repairs and car servicing, while you travel. Bookings can be made online at

The Gautrain

Without a doubt, the Gautrain is the most exciting and dynamic new feature of O.R. Tambo International. It is also very easy to use. Access to the Gautrain’s integrated rail, bus, and parking services is granted by means of a gold card system. These cards can be purchased at all of the stations, and operate on a pay-as-you-go system. You can load your card at vending machines or ticket stations with Mastercard or Visa credit cards and cash. To give you an idea of cost, a single leg from O.R. Tambo to Sandton will cost you R105, whilst a trip from the airport to Pretoria will cost you R125. Parking facilities are available at all stations, except O.R. Tambo. Cost of that is R10 for a day and R60 for two days etc.

The Gautrain Station is within the airport precinct, on the upper levels between terminals A and B. It is well sign-posted and to the right of both arrivals halls. Upon arrival at the station, you need to purchase a gold card, load it with the correct amount (there are officials to assist you), approach the ticket reader on the fare-gate, touch the card reader with your gold card, wait for the green light and beeping sound, and then proceed through the gate. The train is a short walk away and the process is repeated at your destination.

There are three different Gautrain routes. The Airport route operates between O.R. Tambo and Sandton. The North-South route operates between Rosebank and Hatfield in Pretoria, with five stops in-between. The East-West route runs between Sandton and Rhodesfield, which is the stop before the airport. Related bus routes, fares and timetables can be accessed at

Mobile & Internet Access

There is wireless connectivity in various hotspots around the airport, via Airport Online. The Terminal B hotspots are in the retail level restaurants, the departures level restaurants and the boarding gates. In Terminal A, the hotspots are in the airline lounges, the international arrivals and departures sections, the mezzanine level restaurants, and the duty-free mall. The 24-hour helpline for Wi-Fi access is 0861 HOTSPOT.

For mobile needs, there are MTN, Vodacom and Cell C stores on the shopping level of the domestic terminal (B), where you can buy mobile phones, airtime and mobile phone accessories. The international terminal (A) also boasts a number of mobile phone shops and service providers. 

Shopping & Eating

In both terminals there are foreign exchange outlets, including Rennies, Western Union, Travelex, Master Currency and American Express. Additional facilities are in the form of the post office in Terminal B, as well as bank services from Absa.

The duty-free mall is in Terminal A and here you’ll find high-end fashion boutiques, as well as a host of bars and restaurants, from Newscafe to Cafe Ritazza, to Steers takeaway and McGinty’s pub.

Terminal B has a comprehensive food court, with a Mugg and Bean coffee shop and takeway outlets in the form of Anat, Wimpy, Spur, Debonairs Pizza, Cafe Dulce, Fournos Bakery, Kauai, KFC and Nandos.

There’s a bar and eating option, just a bit further along the same level as the food court, in the form of the Keg and Aviator – a great place to watch live sport. There’s also a pharmacy adjacent to the Keg.


BidAir hosts lounges in both terminals, and they are accessible to all travellers for a fee. These Premier lounges boast all the usual amenities, and also offer a seat-booking service for your flight. To pre-book simply go to their website – Complimentary access is granted to Diners Club cardholders.

British Airway’s Slow Lounge (located in Terminal B, past the security check point), for business class travellers, as well as RMB and FNB platinum cardholders, offers gourmet snacks and coffee amongst a host of other amenities, while SAA has made their Baobab Lounge (located on the upper-mezzanine level – airside – in Terminal A) available to business class travellers and Nedbank platinum cardholders. Their pre-eminent Cycad Lounge – in a similar location – is available to first class travellers. Another luxury lounge on the mezzanine level in Terminal A, is hosted by Emirates for their business class travellers. A few months ago, Menzies Aviation followed up their Shongololo Lounge by launching the Mashonzha Lounge, which has more options for smokers.

Did You Know?

Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International is one of only three airports worldwide with direct flights to all six continents. The others are Doha International Airport in Qatar and Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates.

Chris Waldburger