SA Flyer and FlightCom Editor Guy Leitch is
forced to confront the CAA’s many shortcomings.
The latest drama with the SACAA at its centre is the effective grounding of CemAir airline. This is a complex issue as, at time of writing, it is an ongoing battle, with the airline having been grounded for over two weeks and an almost complete lack of communication from the regulator making it hard to get their side of the story.
The tragedy is that both sides are vulnerable – I am reminded of two punch drunk boxers slugging it out to the knock-out. In the one corner of the ring we have Mr Miles van der Molen, the founder and owner of CemAir. In the other corner we have the formidable Ms Poppy Khoza, the Director of the CAA.
Who are the heroes and the villains in this saga, what is their past fight record, and can we judge them on past performance?
Let’s start with the CAA, as that is what this ‘Dossier’ is all about. The speculated reasons behind why the CAA took this drastic action against a successful little airline are flying thick and fast, and at time of writing, reflect badly on the CAA. In the absence of explanation from the CAA, they suggest the agency may have been acting either vindictively, or at the behest of a state-owned airline. The CAA naturally denies this, yet offers no other evidence.
After CemAir had been grounded for a week, the matter was aired in a report by TV programme Carte Blanche, where the CAA’s Simon Segwabe claimed that the regulator had been receiving a number of complaints regarding the airline. Then matters heated up when a CAA inspector reportedly “interfered” with a CemAir flight. It was said that, “… at Margate, a Cemair flight had a technical issue requiring a replacement aircraft. A man identifying himself as from the CAA arrived and demanded answers, was abusive and generally badly mannered. When asked for ID, he could not provide any and proceeded to make a large scene ….”
It needs to be noted that some parts of this account have been denied by CAA apologists, but again, in the absence of solid evidence to the contrary by the CAA, I quote the following from CemAir CEO Miles van der Molen, “… as an IATA member airline, CemAir accommodates, re-accommodates, refunds and compensates passengers in accordance with IATA rules, as is our obligation. Those who fly with us can attest to the level of customer service we provide and the likeliness of us treating a reasonable enquiry with rudeness.”
The next possible reason for the grounding relates to a battle CemAir has with rights to fly to Hoedspruit. CemAir claims the application was refused because the bureaucrat responsible didn’t know the SAAF airport used the name Eastgate for its civil operations. CemAir took the matter on appeal and it is still pending.
The third possible reason for the grounding is that CemAir’s primary competitor is SA Express, a state-owned airline. This makes it possible for critics to claim that the CAA, as a government agency, was pressured by SA Express to ground its competitor. A report by Travel News Weekly says that in 2017 a CAA employee allegedly said, “… we are going to nail them [CemAir] next year.” SA Express has naturally denied these claims, however any accusation of a lack of impartiality on the part of the CAA is very serious.
Let’s now look at the other bruised fighter in this boxing ring – CemAir. This airline is burdened by the baggage of history, specifically a tragedy back in 1999. Miles van der Molen was then a youthful CEO of charter operator Flightline. He was operating a Piper Chieftain which suffered a partial engine failure on takeoff from Rand and crashed and burned. There was much argument as to whether the aircraft was overloaded, as it had a VG kit which raised the MAUW. This tragedy left a deep scar in the psyche of general aviation and did much to harm the industry’s image, and it hurts me still to even mention it. It’s not surprising then that even 18 years later, the CAA is watching Miles van der Molen like a vulture.
The second burden that CemAir carries is also historical – and none of its own doing. It relates back to the engine that fell off a Nationwide Boeing 737-200 on takeoff from Cape Town in November 2007. This dramatic failure required a heroic feat of piloting to save the day. The CAA investigated and found paperwork deficiencies relating to the provenance of parts. This meant that the airline could have been using pirate or time expired parts which would explain why the engine bolt broke. The CAA understandably doesn’t want to risk a repeat of anything like this, so pre-emptively grounded almost all of CemAir’s fleet.
Which raises the question: is anything actually wrong with CemAir’s planes? The answer may well be that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the actual aircraft, only the paperwork. Again, the CAA denies this, yet offers no further explanation of evidence. Is it possible to have smoke without fire? The CAA, in a press release I did not receive, reportedly said, “It was therefore disheartening to read reports that suggest that CemAir refers to the comprehensive findings outlined in the audit safety report as a ‘mere paperwork discrepancy’ whilst its corrective action plan has acknowledged the existence and root cause of the deficiencies. Surely, if indeed that was the case, the matter would have taken a few hours, and not weeks, to resolve by ‘producing the right paperwork’. As such, any talk of a ‘mere paperwork discrepancy’ is an ill-advised public relations exercise.”
It may be argued that the CAA bureaucrats do not distinguish between a paperwork deficiency and an actual physical problem on the aircraft. The bureaucrats reasonably point out that if the paperwork is not right, how can they, or the travelling public, have any confidence that the aircraft has been properly maintained? In fact, if paperwork is not done right, there is every reason to believe the maintenance is not done right either.
In the TV programme, the CAA’s Segwabe insisted that if the paperwork is not right, the aeroplane is not safe, and so the CAA went on to withdraw the certificates of airworthiness (CofA) for all 12 aircraft. Given the current dysfunctionality of the CAA airworthiness department and the time required to renew a CofA, this is life threatening to CemAir.
But the specific issue the CAA used to ground the 12 aircraft seems tenuous at best. The CAA reportedly conducted an inspection and decreed that engineers who were not authorised to do so, had signed out the aircraft’s compasses. Miles van der Molen says the CAA emailed him at 11.55 on a Friday night to tell him all his planes were grounded from 6.00 the next morning. If it was just a paperwork problem, it would have been reasonable to have given CemAir the opportunity to rectify the paperwork without actually grounding the 12 aircraft. Instead the CAA withdrew the certificates of airworthiness (CofA) for the 12 locally operated aircraft and CemAir’s Aircraft Maintenance Organisation (AMO) approval. To get these aircraft back in the air will, according to the CAA, require a lengthy four step process: 1. Formal Application, 2. Document Evaluation, 3. Demonstration Phase, 4. Certification. According to Miles van der Molen, this is probably going to take at least a month to complete.
The grounding by the CAA seems particularly questionable as CemAir has passed the stringent IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) and also three BARS audits (the Flight Safety Foundation’s Basic Aviation Risk Standard).
A poster, Richard007, on internet forum avcom.co.za, summed up the views of many when he commented: “Compliance and safety are different, and the CAA has a history of overstepping in this regard. For example, an Ethiopian flight was grounded because the Captain’s English proficiency exam had lapsed the day before. Any normal person will agree that he didn’t forget how to speak English because of the expiry, so there is no safety concern. The regulations say it’s required, so it’s a compliance issue. Ethiopian was grounded and 300 odd people were inconvenienced. What was really achieved? The CAA approach grounding as a victory not as a failure. There is a culture of ‘maximum damage’ that guides actions in that place and its very damaging to aviation. If I was a betting man, I would say this is a compliance technicality being pushed too far by another agenda. I don’t know CemAir well, but it has changed the landscape of SA aviation, so I guess that will … make a few enemies. So many opinions here seem to be driven by events in Miles’s life that are decades old. It’s easy to do a Google search and connect two dots 20 years apart, but the chances of this having any relevance is small. SA aviation has lost so much in the last 10 years. We need companies like this to survive.”
The reality of the grounding of the 12 aircraft meant that CemAir had to cancel flights, thus stranding passengers. More severely though, it has caused a sharp drop of confidence in the airline, both in terms of its safety and in terms of cash flow, as CemAir had to refund passengers, or pay for them to fly on other airlines.
The big question at time of writing is how long CemAir will be able to survive with most of its fleet grounded. It has recently acquired large and expensive turboprops and regional jets, and the leases require regular payments. Airlines, especially small privately-owned ones without the benefit of a large state guarantee, live hand to mouth existences. While CemAir has a charter and dry lease operation to fall back on, it cannot afford to be grounded for much longer. If it is forced into bankruptcy, not only will a good little airline with 240 employees have been killed off by the very regulator that is supposed to develop aviation, but the regional towns it serves such as Sishen, Margate and Plettenburg Bay will be without an air service and will be economically damaged. This will cause significant knock-on effects in terms of job losses.
In the unlikely event the CAA can in fact be proven to have acted unreasonably or even vindictively, it will have done much harm. Notable has been the lack of communication from the CAA, which makes the regulator appear either arrogant or vulnerable.
In the light of the CAA’s past over reaction, its role as a government agency and the behaviour of its inspectors, it is natural to wonder if there is some truth to the allegations of a vendetta against CemAir. It needs to be noted that, presumably in retaliation to this ‘Dossier’, it appears I have been removed from the CAA’s press release list, so I get their releases indirectly. In the interests of balance, I submitted this article to the CAA’s Communication Manager, Mr Kabelo Ledwaba, and after ten days had still not received any comment, nor from Mr Simon Segwabe. And I must also ask – in matters so serious that they may well kill off an airline – where is CAA Director Ms Poppy Khoza in this? I am told that she was away when the initial grounding was done, but since her return, the attitude of the inspectors has changed and inspections are finally happening – albeit slowly.
The CAA’s job is to develop aviation, not kill airlines. If CemAir goes under – as well it might – the loss to the aviation industry and the broader economy, particularly in the towns CemAir serves, will be incalculable. If there is any truth at all to the allegation of vindictiveness or of favouring a state-owned competitor, the Director must resign – or be fired. Another reason why we need an aviation ombudsman.