Jetting into Oribi

2007-12-18 00:00

I believe that there has been a lot of miscommunication and distortion of the facts surrounding the Airlink operation into Oribi Airport. The many thanks that the Airlink staff in Pietermaritzburg have received from passengers would indicate that there is another side to the story.

Airlink has been operating into Oribi since 1992 and frequent flyers know that from time to time, due to low clouds and poor visibility, it is not possible to approach and land safely at Oribi. It has always been a challenging airport to operate into and out of, due to the hilly terrain and the very technical nature of the approach procedure in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). The radio navigational aids installed at Oribi Airport are very basic and in fact are being phased out at many South African and regional airports.

Because of an increase in demand for early morning departures out of Pietermaritzburg and evening return flights from Johannesburg, Airlink looked for a way in which to be able to increase capacity but at the same time manage costs.

The solution was found in the British Aerospace BAE 146-200 jet aircraft, which has 97 seats. Airlink currently operates four such jets. This aircraft has proven itself able to operate safely into other airports around the world that have similar technically challenging approach conditions, for example London.

The objective, then, of using this aircraft was to be able to both provide the additional seats required at peak times as well as being able to manage costs and offer fares that could compete with those of flights between Durban and Johannesburg.

We obtained a commitment from the Oribi Airport management to upgrade certain facilities that would allow a jet of the BAE’s category to operate into the airport. Among other requirements, this upgrade included increasing the fire-fighting capability of the equipment and crews stationed at Oribi.

The South African Civil Aviation authority issued a 90-day dispensation for Oribi that would allow Airlink to operate its jet there.

Airlink’s commitment was, in line with this dispensation, to operate a limited jet service from November 1 through to January 28, 2008. The objective of this test phase was to prove both the operational capability of the jet as well as to gauge the response of the market.

Airlink’s four other daily return flights continued to be served by British Aerospace Jetstream 41 turbo-prop aircraft.

When Airlink first introduced the jet to the Pietermaritzburg community on a technical proving flight conducted on September 19, I made no promises that the jet would not be affected any less by bad weather on its approach into Oribi. I advised the Msunduzi Municipality councillors present that Airlink was looking to explore new satellite-based technology (GNSS) that could assist in improving the accuracy of the approach, but that weather was still a significant concern.

Nevertheless, we undertook to commit to the three-month proving period, as we believed that it was important to explore all aspects carefully before the council committed to significant capital investment in order to upgrade the airport facilities and employ additional fire and rescue personnel.

This past November has seen the worst weather on record for some time. There is no doubt that the weather gods were stacked up against Airlink and its evening flights into Pietermaritzburg.

What readers of The Witness may not know is how South African Civil Aviation’s regulations with regard to air crew’s hours of duty come into play when an aircraft diverts to Durban. A flight diverted from Pietermaritzburg the night before can only depart at a certain regulated time the next morning, to fly back to Pietermaritzburg to operate that morning’s early flight departure. So our passengers often experienced a double whammy.

Additionally, not only has the weather been bad in Pietermaritzburg but it has affected Johannesburg and many of Airlink’s other destinations. The company has, on several occasions, experienced rolling impacts that have affected flights from one night to the next morning, through the day and into the evening’s departures to Pietermaritzburg.

The test-period operation to Pietermaritzburg has also revealed additional operational and passenger handling issues at O. R. Tambo International. Airlink’s management have taken to heart the feedback they have received and in many instances have been in one-on-one dialogue with the affected passengers. We apologise for the poor service they received and can assure them that we have been working very hard with all of our stakeholders to improve our processes and procedures.

With regard to technical events, these happen in the airline environment from time to time and we will never compromise our passengers’ safety by not taking the necessary time to correctly diagnose and repair a fault. Airlink enjoys a very high rate of despatch reliability, which, across our fleet of 22 aircraft, averages 98%. We experienced three separate technical events during the test period and the crew and ground personnel in each event took the right decisions in the interests of safety even though this may have caused passenger inconvenience. Airlink spent in excess of R300 000 during November on busing passengers between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

We are happy with the findings of the proving exercise so far and intend to return the jet to service certain flights on the Pietermaritzburg schedule, subject to the following actions by Oribi Airport.

• Oribi will need to reconfirm the category six status which lapses on January 28, 2008, without which we cannot operate a jet of the BAE146’s category into the airport

• Unless the quality and accuracy of the IMC approach into Oribi can be improved, should the weather and the cloud base be below the legal minimum for operating into Oribi, Airlink’s pilots will continue to have to divert to Durban and inconvenience passengers. This is a situation that neither Airlink nor its passengers would want to perpetuate.

• Airlink has commissioned and funded the technical work that has now to be completed to develop the necessary satellite-based GNSS approach procedure which will assist our pilots when landing at Oribi in poor weather. Airlink will do whatever is needed to take this technical design through to the formal publication process with the relevant aeronautical authorities. All flights operating into Oribi will be able to enjoy a technological advantage from this work.

• Oribi Airport has committed to proceed to certify the ground-based VOR-DME equipment that has already been installed at the airport. This will provide another improvement in the accuracy of the procedural approach in poor weather.

• Oribi Airport has also undertaken to explore the upgrading of its approach lighting system and implementation of a “running rabbit” that will assist pilots and guide them on to the threshold in low visibility. Currently, because of the lights of the city, it is often hard to identify the airport’s runway lights even if the cloud base is above the minimum.

All of this will take time and investment by both parties.

Airlink has been providing the citizens of the Msunduzi region with a safe and reliable service since 1992. I apologise again for disappointing some of our passengers, but with improved navigational aids and processes, we look forward to being able to achieve all of our objectives.

• Rodger Foster is the Airlink MD and CEO.

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