Pilots' association attempting to discredit vaccine flight, says public enterprises dept

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South African Airways (SAA) pilots have raised concern over the cost a flight to transport Covid-19 vaccines.
South African Airways (SAA) pilots have raised concern over the cost a flight to transport Covid-19 vaccines.
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  • The Department of Public Enterprises says a group of pilots is attempting to discredit an SAA flight transporting vaccines.
  • The flight is expected to return from Belgium on Saturday with 80 000 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.
  • However, the group of pilots says the expenses incurred in sending the plane could have been avoided.

The Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) has lashed out at a group of South African Airways (SAA) pilots who raised concern over the cost of a flight to transport Covid-19 vaccines.

In a statement, the department said the pilots were "attempting to discredit a flight to transport vaccines back into the country to protect health workers from the Covid-19 pandemic".

South African Airways Pilots' Association (Saapa) chairperson, Grant Back, told News24 that the flight could cost taxpayers around R5 million, a price tag he believed the government could have avoided by using another commercial flight scheduled for the same day.

The flight, which left on Wednesday night, is expected to return on Saturday with 80 000 vaccine doses.

On Thursday, Louise Brugman, a spokesperson for SAA's business rescue practitioners, confirmed the flight was funded by the government in a "commercial arrangement between SAA and the government".

However, in a statement, the department said the flight was a test of the relaunch of the SAA Cargo business.

READ | SAA's 'R5m journey' to fetch latest vaccine doses a 'vanity flight', says pilots' association

"The Brussels flight to bring back the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is proof that a restructured and well-managed airline operated in a professional and sustainable manner can support key economic sectors – including travel, tourism and even cargo to solidify South Africa as an African gateway to international markets."

The flight in question will bring back the vaccine and more cargo on the return leg, to ensure overall operation is cost effective, the statement said.

Back contended that the flight was mainly carrying spare parts on the way to Belgium – a far cry from the 66 tonnes of freight it could have carried. In addition, he added, the flight was overstaffed and there was no need for cabin crew aboard a cargo flight.

Back said:

If this was the only way to get the vaccine to millions of people, we would have 100% supported it. But they are spending millions when there are still pilots who haven't been paid. Doesn't the South African public have the right to know what it would cost to have the vaccines sent on a commercial flight?

The statement further said "claims by detractors", in which it included Saapa, were "devoid of the truth".

"This is all being done to protect the extortionist regulatory agreement, which ensured that pilots who are 11% of SAA staff get a massive 65% of the salary bill, and certain strategic decisions at the airline could not be effected without their consent. For the DPE and SAA Business Rescue Practitioners, the agreement is not only unlawful because it holds back the transformation and does not allow progress of black pilots as designated in the Employment Equity Act," the statement said.

Back countered that the organisation represented 88% of pilots at SAA.

He added that the real cause for concern was that high-level positions were still held by members of management who "drove SAA to where it is today".

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