PODCAST | The Story: Clipped wings, turbulence and clear skies: Inside the Comair saga

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This week on The Story, an aviation expert tells News24 the grounding of Kulula and domestic British Airways flights, operated by Comair, should have been a "last resort".
This week on The Story, an aviation expert tells News24 the grounding of Kulula and domestic British Airways flights, operated by Comair, should have been a "last resort".
  • The SA Civil Aviation Authority lifted its suspension of Comair's Air Operating Certificate late on Wednesday night.
  • British Airways and kulula.com flights were operational from Thursday morning.
  • The grounding of flights was implemented last Saturday after a series of safety incidents.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) last week suspended Comair's operator certificate indefinitely. This after several safety incidents in the space of a month, ranging from engine failures, engine malfunctions and landing gear malfunctions.

On 7 March, the final straw was when a kulula.com flight from Lanseria to Cape Town had to be diverted to OR Tambo because of an engine-related issue. The incidents triggered a review of the company's risk and safety management procedures.

This week, on The Story, co-hosts Catherine Rice and Amy Gibbings talk to Business Insider journalist Luke Daniel and an aviation expert about the Comair saga. 

Daniel said there were intense discussions between Comair and the regulator to resolve the issues. Five days later, flights were resumed.

During the suspension, domestic airline capacity was cut by 40% and, as a result, Daniel said flight costs rose dramatically. 

"The question around price gouging is one that the Competition Commission is investigating. I can't comment on whether airlines did or did not, but it is suspicious, and we were seeing flights one way from Johannesburg to Cape town stretching upwards of R4 000, even R5 000, which is hugely expensive."

He said it was "the perfect storm" for consumers.

Daniel said travellers would be credited for their flights, but this was "hugely criticised".

He added that travellers would not get refunds "any time soon".

Aviation expert and managing director at Plane Talking, Linden Birns, said SACAA had not been transparent during the process and had not taken the public "into their confidence".

He said it doesn't bode well for SACAA or Comair as it creates an "information vacuum", which fuels speculation and conjecture.

Birns said he doesn't believe there is a systemic problem with safety in the aviation industry.

He said, "people don't need to panic".

He believes SACAA tends to ground airlines "almost as a matter of first resort rather than last resort. Grounding an airline should only be done after you've exhausted every other method and instrument at your disposal to support safety". 

He said there is an "unfortunate track record" of grounding airlines and, every time it's happened, "its raised questions that the Civil Aviation Authority has not been able to adequately answer, other than hiding behind this general notion that it's in the interests of safety".

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