As travellers and the aviation industry took a hit with the grounding of Comair and South African Airways on Wednesday, light has finally been shed on the specific details that led to the disruption.
At a press conference at OR Tambo International Airport, head of South Africa's Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) Poppy Khoza confirmed that two of five findings made in an audit on SAA Technical (SAAT) were serious enough to prompt airlines to ground some of their fleet as a precautionary measure. Twenty-five SAA planes, 12 Comair and seven Mango Airlines planes were taken out of service, but have since then returned to operations.
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The five issues unpacked
One was related to an issue where aircraft were released from maintenance by off by unqualified staff at SAAT, while the other was related to maintenance on black boxes and their voice recorders that weren't done in line with international regulations.
The other three were more administrative in nature, related to a lack of information released on aircraft and the failure to implement previous findings which were easy to rectify.
SACAA sought assurance that the issue wasn't replicated on other aircraft and required evidence from the airlines affected. While the evidence was being investigated, the airlines opted to ground the planes affected by the findings as a safety measure.
Transport minister Fikile Mbalula continued to maintain that it was not a crisis, and that it happens more often than people think.
"SAAT is itself an internationally rated business, but our role as the Department of Transport is to regulate and monitor," says Mbalula.
"SAAT services many airlines including those that compete with SAA and other international airlines that come to South Africa, its track record is blemish-free in this aspect and our work is to assist but verify that they continue to make South Africa proud. When SAA made the pronouncements it did about certain concerns on parts used by SAAT, as regulator, SACCA was duty-bound to act."
"It is against this backdrop that the SACAA engaged with the affected airlines to solicit assurance that the rest of the fleet does not display the same deficiencies."
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Commitment to safety
Khoza reiterated this, adding that they are "not being dramatic" when they find issues at airports and with airlines, adding that this incident only became such a big issue because it happened on a much bigger scale than usual and created a lot more inconvenience.
"We are in the business of safety and security, and that involves passengers' lives and cannot be taken likely. The CAA doesn’t have any friends that they negotiate with, we don’t discuss if there’s an imminent danger – we act. We are firm, we are fair and we act without fear or favour."
Fundi Sithebe, COO at Airports Company South Africa reiterated the commitment to safety, stating that they had minimised disruptions effectively through pro-active management.
A key reason that led to the panic around the grounding was a lack of communication, according to the minister, which the department will ensure is more effective and clear in the future.
Mbalula also highlighted South Africa's safety record of zero fatal accidents concerning airlines and other scheduled commercial operations.
"The number of aircraft accidents can be used as one of the basic barometers that can indicate the presence or otherwise of the effective administration of civil aviation safety and security oversight in a country."