Hein Kaiser
Journalist
4 minute read
2 Jul 2021
1:23 pm

Is US regulator set to probe SA aviation body over Belgium vaccines trip?

Hein Kaiser

Could the Department of Transport denying the US's Delta Airlines landing rights in Cape Town earlier this month be behind the probe?

An SAA aircraft on the runway at the OR Tambo International Airport. Picture: Gallo Images/The Times/Alon Skuy

Is South Africa’s civil aviation safety rating in danger of being downgraded?

In late June, SA Flyer magazine’s Facebook page reported that the United States aviation regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), intended to conduct an oversight audit of the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), with mention of its airline operations division as a possible area of interest.

The SACAA confirmed that it was engaging with the FAA, but declined to provide any further details.

A well-placed source confirmed that the FAA did reach out to the SACAA and that the parties were presently engaged in discussions. Officially, the US authority indicated that South Africa was not specifically on its radar.

But the FAA shared with The Citizen its process and rationale for such audits.

“Under the International Aviation Safety Assessment [IASA] programme, the FAA determines whether another country’s oversight of its air carriers that operate, or seek to operate, into the US, or codeshare with a US air carrier, complies with safety standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organisation [ICAO].”

“The  programme focuses on a country’s ability, not the ability of individual air carriers, to adhere to international aviation safety standards and recommended practices.”

The consequences of failing an FAA audit can severely impact air travel to and from a market, for airlines registered in a safety-downgraded country, with concomitant downstream effects for tourism.

In 2015, Thailand failed an FAA audit, reportedly on 26 counts. The consequences were that no new flights by Thai operators would be allowed post the downgrade.

But other countries took note of this too, and China, South Korea and Japan temporarily banned Thai carriers from operating in and out of their markets. About 30,000 tickets had to be refunded to passengers and 100 charters cancelled.

The commercial impact can be devastating for an industry already on its knees.  Findings reportedly included several airline operator certification procedures concerns.

South African Airways (SAA) 2.0 may be impacted should concerns be raised by the FAA, who presently holds rights to frequencies into New York and Washington DC, and onward connections through partner airlines.

However, the almost-privatised national carrier has already been prevented from expanding its network in the US or leveraging relationships with other US carriers with onward connections due to a political spat between the American and South African transport departments.

The Americans have accused South Africa of unilaterally reinterpreting the terms of a 1996 agreement. SA’s Department of Transport denied Delta Airlines landing rights in Cape Town earlier this month.

The Facebook post on SA Flyer magazine’s page reads like a horror story.

It says: “From other sources we’ve established that a whistleblower with detailed knowledge of the current status within our regulator has provided such detailed information to the US regulator, including details that current part 121 (airline operations) inspectors do not hold airline pilot licences that many have never operated jets or aircraft with pressurised cabins.”

It goes on to note that there is allegedly “a load of other accusations that this disgruntled person has reportedly provided to the FAA”.

Guy Leitch, editor of SA Flyer and aviation expert said: “I believe that the willingness of the SACAA to issue exemptions for the Brussels flight is one of a number of warning flags that has attracted the FAA’s attention.

“The ill-advised nature of these exemptions was borne out by the alpha floor and other exceedances incurred by the crew.  The other is the loss of competent inspectors and the associated skills that are required to inspect the part 121 and 135 operators. The loss of inspectors is partly attributable to the strain Covid has placed on the regulator.”

The Citizen reported on SAA 4272, the notorious vaccine collection flight to and from Brussels, where the departing flight experienced a rare alpha floor event, allegedly due to a known glitch not addressed by the crew not following a prescribed checklist.

On the return flight, the same crew broke European noise abatement regulations.

ALSO READ: SAA crew may be guilty of negligence

SAA was accused of not reporting the incident, a finding confirmed by the SACAA in April when it said to The Citizen that the outcome of an investigation was imminent, and that SAA would receive a report. Thereafter any action taken on findings would be decided.

“A preliminary assessment indicated that SAA did not report the incident to the SACAA within the stipulated timelines.

“Upon receipt of the reported information, an investigation team was assembled by the SACAA to probe the incident and present a report for consideration. The probe has duly been conducted and a report is still being compiled to outline the full findings and recommendations.

“The content of the report, outlining the investigation conducted and findings, will serve as a guide on the appropriate enforcement action to be considered. As things stand, this process is at an advanced stage.”

Two months later and the SACAA did not answer The Citizen when asked what the status of the probe was and whether it had received a response from SAA.

In April, SAA declined to comment on its own internal investigation and again declined to comment to The Citizen about the any action taken based on the SACAA’s findings