29 May 2018

South Africa: Clipped Wings - SA Express Grounded Amid Serious Safety Concerns

SA Express was grounded last week amid serious safety concerns. The South African Civil Aviation Authority suspended the airline's operating permits and it could be months before the airline is operational again. Three passengers who travelled with SA Express earlier this month have called for drastic change.

The news that SA Express has been grounded comes with a sigh of relief for many passengers who experienced traumatic voyages over the past month. The decision to disband the airline came from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) who suspended SA Express Air Operator's Certificate on 24 May 2018.

In a statement released last week, SACAA said that SA Express "can no longer continue to operate as an airline" after audits had been done which found "severe cases of non-compliance that pose serious safety risks".

During its audit of SA Express, SACAA found seventeen (17) examples of the airline not meeting national standards, five (5) of which were found to pose serious safety and security risks to the public.

Director of Civil Aviation, Ms Poppy Khoza said that "the SACAA cannot turn a blind eye to any operation where there is overwhelming evidence that safety measures are compromised, because that automatically poses serious danger for the crew, passengers, and the public at large".

The SA Express website informs passengers that the airline is non-operational and includes the message from Acting CEO Matsietsi Mokholo, that "we regret the inconvenience this frustrating situation has caused our passengers. We assure you that we are doing everything in our power to resolve the situation urgently".

In response to SA Express' offer to resolve the situation urgently, one begs the question, which part of the numerous concerns should they address first, the issue of being deemed non-operational, the issue of constant flight delays, or the issue of passengers feeling endangered by their services?

This question is a necessity for many passengers who experienced difficulties with SA Express over the past few months. Three passengers who travelled with SA Express during the past month shared their safety concerns and have called for drastic change within their airline.

Mbeko Mnyatheli was flying from East London to Durban on flight SA1412 when the aircraft experienced engine malfunction whilst on route to Johannesburg. The aircraft took off 40 minutes late due to the aircraft not wanting to start and a few minutes after becoming airborne, an explosion occurred. Mr Mnyatheli described the horrid experience of passengers crying and praying in the aircraft, whilst assuming the brace position in case of a crash. The aircraft returned to East London, landed safely and a second plane was arranged to fly the rest of the route. As a result of the delay Mnyatheli, who was set to travel abroad for work, subsequently missed his connecting flight and was told that SA Express could not offer him any accommodation or meals as their only mandate was to fly him to Johannesburg, which they had accomplished. His story like many others brought forward uncomfortable truths about the treatment of passengers inconvenienced by SA Express.

An international traveller, Daniela Kuhn, flew to South Africa with KLM airlines from Germany. Kuhn was set to fly from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit in Limpopo when her flight was delayed due to safety concerns with the aircraft. A few hours later passengers were asked to board their flight, which took off, and circled Johannesburg before landing. Daniela described the experience of having to wait inside the airplane whilst airport safety examined the aircraft. She also described how irritated she and her fellow passengers were after waiting at the airport terminal with no communication from SA Express. Hours later, a vague statement was made about complications with the aircraft and passengers were accommodated at a nearby airport hotel. Daniela echoed the sentiments that the aircraft should not have taken off if the lives of the passengers were in danger.

A third passenger, Shane Pillay, described his dissatisfaction at the constant delays experienced with SA Express. A flight from Johannesburg to Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal set to depart at 13:15, was delayed until 14:00 and then delayed until 4pm and experienced further delays until 8:30 pm. These delays were not uncommon for the Richards Bay route, said Mr Pillay, who had a similar experience two weeks prior when the flight was delayed until 10pm and did not take off at all, resulting in the passengers being booked into an airport hotel and flown out the next day.

These and many other passengers lament the conditions of the SA Express aircrafts, the lack of communication by their airline and the overall haphazard demeanour of dealing with passengers in crisis. The airline needs to reflect on their service and their safety to assure that the changes they make result in safer aircrafts, better communications and better handling of crises by the SA Express staff. Until these major concerns are addressed, the airline should not be operational, as they risk the lives of their passengers and the integrity of South African Aviation.

Taryn Isaacs De Vega is completing her PhD on Media Accountability Mechanisms at the University of South Africa (UNISA), whilst working at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU).

Taryn is also a researcher for the Media Policy and Democracy Project, a collaborative research project between universities of South Africa and represents the emerging scholars on the executive of the South African Communications Association. Taryn believes deeply in the power of Higher Education to alleviate the challenges facing the world today and affirms that researchers must create socially conscious research based on meaningful engagement to lead this change.

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