NOMPU SIZIBA: The Civil Aviation Authority grounded SAA and Comair flights today [Tuesday, October 22], in order to pursue a compliance exercise for airlines to put business-continuity measures in place to ensure that they continue to service their clients. So, should we as the South African public be worried about this turn of events?
Well, I’m joined on the line by Joachim Vermooten, an independent transport economist. Thanks very much for joining us, Joachim. Has this sort of thing happened before, where all of a sudden the CAA grounds commercial aircraft?
JOACHIM VERMOOTEN: Certainly. The CAA has grounded commercial aircraft in the past. Nationwide comes to mind there, and South African Express comes to mind. This is an important development, as it’s the first time that the major maintenance organisation has been at fault, and obviously it has an effect on the airlines. But the problem has emanated from the technical division of SAA.
NOMPU SIZIBA: That is quite a concern, because obviously they do maintain and service the SAA and Comair aircraft. And of course there have been some rumours in one particular newspaper – I don’t know if one can or can’t give credence to it. But should we be worried?
JOACHIM VERMOOTEN: I think as long as South African Civil Aviation has [checked], I think it’s okay. They act, as you have probably seen, with reason, and one would like to see SAA Technical in the position where it used to be. It was one of the foremost quality MRO [maintenance, repair and overhaul] organisations in the world, and one would like to see it back in that position again.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. When you look at its recent history, what’s gone wrong? Is it lacking capacity, skills and so on?
JOACHIM VERMOOTEN: SAA Technical finds itself at the bottom as a subsidiary of a state-owned airline, which is in financial difficulties. So, within a technical division you need to have competent management and people that are licensed. You can’t take any shortcuts. If you are not licensed you are not able to do work or sign off on paperwork associated with that. And that requires enough funding, enough systems, enough stockholding, and the ability to get the right personnel in place.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Of course, people are suggesting that there must have been a catalyst for the CAA to have taken the action that it did. Do we know anything or have any details around why a Mango aircraft had to suddenly land at OR Tambo, come back from the place that it was headed to?
JOACHIM VERMOOTEN: The SAA report on it was difficult to understand at first. There was a report relating to some un-airworthiness of parts, and later that there was some fraud involved; and at a later stage it seems that the part was unserviceable. So, those are the three alternatives which have different meanings and implications. The fundamental issue is that maintenance is very heavily based on the integrity of the systems, and especially on signing off of documentation and the maintenance of documentation for all parts. An aircraft is really a composite of various components, so it’s an essential part of that.
NOMPU SIZIBA: So, what’s the latest that we’ve heard, Joachim, in terms of when SAA and Comair will be able to fly their aircraft again?
JOACHIM VERMOOTEN: Well, the Civil Aviation Authority has issued a press report in which they say SAA Technical has submitted a corrective action plan which seems to be acceptable to the CAA. That in place, basically once SAA Technical has implemented the necessary actions, those aircraft would be free to operate again.
NOMPU SIZIBA: And then, lastly and separately, do we know the impact that the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX has had on the global aircraft industry, because it’s been several months and these guys are having to park their aircraft – and yet they are still paying for them?
JOACHIM VERMOOTEN: That’ll have a huge impact, and of course there are many legal actions going to develop from this, because an aircraft manufacturer commits to certain warranties on aircraft performance and dispatch reliability – and nothing has come of that. So, it will be quite some time for that to be sorted out. So, their first issue is to see whether it can be type certified to get going again.
NOMPU SIZIBA: And will those airlines that’ve been affected be able to get any recompense from Boeing, since its their [Boeing’s] fault.
JOACHIM VERMOOTEN: I’m sure that there are going be some very rich lawyers from that.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Joachim, thank you very much for your time.