BACK STORY: SA Express warning signs were ignored
Memos seen by Times Select reveal aviation authority was not the only institution to raise the alarm
The future of SA Express hangs in the balance following the grounding of the state-owned airline amid serious safety concerns.
But this latest crisis – which came after an engine on an SA Express flight from Johannesburg to East London malfunctioned in mid-air – has been coming for quite some time. The South African Civil Aviation Authority grounded SA Express for 42 hours in May 2016, and has been subjecting the airline to repeat audits and inspections ever since.
At the time of that 42-hour grounding, the CAA said it had picked up alarming shortcomings in the airline’s safety systems. It grounded the fleet only after the airline repeatedly failed to meet the regulator’s stringent demands, and following numerous complaints from passengers regarding “turnbacks”, when planes have to return to the airport after taking off.Regarding the latest grounding of SA Express, CAA spokesperson Phindiwe Gwebu has stressed that the aviation body requires a corrective action plan from airlines found to have safety deficits – which may include a high turnover of staff tasked with key safety-related responsibilities. The more severe the safety threat, she says, the quicker the airline is required to prove that it has addressed the problem.
It seems this did not happen with SA Express, prompting the CAA to suspend SA Express's Air Operator's Certificate, Aircraft Maintenance Organisation approvals and Certificates of Airworthiness of nine of the 21 aircraft currently being operated by the airline.
This effectively means that SA Express can no longer continue to operate as an airline.
It’s also emerged that the CAA was not the only institution to raise alarm about whether SA Express planes should be in the air.Correspondence seen by Times Select reveals that the International Air Licensing Council twice asked SA Express to appear before it in July last year, to address complaints from rival airline Airlink that its financial position was poor and it wasn’t acting in accordance to the conditions of its licence to fly. Airlink repeated that complaint in mid-October, specifically in relation to SA Express’s Johannesburg-Windhoek route.
And a November 2017 memo written by former acting SA Express CEO Victor Xaba reveals that the airline had been put under pressure to investigate apparent rampant theft of aircraft components and spares – which had played a significant part in the airline’s poor record of aircraft availability, and forced it to spend hundreds of millions of rands on chartering planes.
The memo states that SA Express owns only four of the 22 aircraft it uses on its routes, and “dry leases” the remainder. But Xaba raised the alarm that this low aircraft availability had been driven by, among other things, an “inefficient Repair and Overhaul function”, unavailability of important parts and “delayed implementation of a fleet renewal strategy” – all factors that may have played a significant part in SA Express’s current safety concerns.Xaba’s memo further revealed that the SA Express board was extremely concerned that unbudgeted-for expenses linked to this chartering could not be properly accounted for – and posed a significant financial risk to the already beleaguered company.
“This concern emanated from the fact that the Board was only made aware late in the financial year about the excessive expenditure on charters. This resulted from the manner in which the costs were 'hidden' under the lease costs expense line in the management accounts.”
The alleged theft of parts – some of which were valued at millions of rands – has been a concern for SA Express for some time, and played a significant part in the company being forced to utilise charter plane services.
Documents seen by Times Select show that Xaba had pushed for this theft to be forensically investigated. It is unclear at this time whether this was ever done, but two employees were subjected to disciplinary inquires as a consequence of the alleged theft. One, thus far, has been dismissed.
The future for SA Express is now uncertain.
An industry insider told BDLive on Thursday that SA Express's survival depended on how long the carrier remained suspended. “Customers get fed up after a while,” he said.
The complexity introduced by the proposed merger between state-owned SAA, Mango and SA Express must also be reckoned in as a factor. “Each of these airlines have independent structures. It will make things difficult.”