In December I was pleased to be granted an exclusive interview by Ms Siza Mzimela, the Interim CEO of SA Express. In her judicious words (published in this issue) she notes that the South African Civil Aviation authority is ‘surprisingly tough’. This has become increasingly evident in the draconian manner the SACAA has been shutting down what it deems to be substandard operators.
At time of writing, two airports have fallen short of the SACAA’s requirements: Blantyre in Malawi and Mthatha in South Africa. The reported problems with the airports relate to broken fences and inadequate firefighting services. This forced a number of airlines to halt flights to these airports.
But the elephant in the room remains the grounding of CemAir. This IOSA certificated airline has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the regulator, and after its second major grounding, in early December 2018, it was just a matter of time before the SACAA’s inspectors uncovered yet more claimed defects. The expensive part of the airline’s fleet was grounded the day after Christmas and the whole operation was grounded on 11 January.
CemAir once again had to resort to the courts to attempt to get its grounding overturned, or at least temporarily uplifted. This time the airline failed to convince the judge that the CAA was wrong, and at time of writing it appears that the airline will give up its battle with the South African regulator and ply its trade elsewhere in Africa.
The damage done by this grounding is huge. Apart from the unemployment of more than 300 CemAir employees, the loss of essential connectivity will be felt for years to come – some routes that CemAir alone serviced may now not be served at all, and other routes where CemAir competed, will now become much more expensive. All of this is bad for the South African economy and will cost it billions of Rands over time.
In an Op-Ed piece for the general media on the CemAir grounding I wrote: “There has been an unprecedented increase in the frequency of airlines grounded by the CAA. In the twenty years to 2018 it was almost unheard of for an airline to be grounded. In marked contrast to the two cases in the past twenty years, this year the CAA has grounded airlines three times: CemAir on 2 February, then SA Express on 24 May and then CemAir again on 12 December. Either the airline industry has suddenly turned bad – or the CAA has run amok.
With the further partial grounding of CemAir on 26 December and then the complete grounding on 11 January there was real concern that the CAA may indeed have ‘run amok’. I received numerous other reports of heavy handedness – most notably from AMOs that had their licences pulled on apparently minor grounds.
The CAA may be continuously raising its standards and the weak or small players simply can no longer meet these standards, but it may also be a regulator in desperate need of what some have called ‘responsible adult supervision’. The question that must be asked is; “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – who guards the guardians?”