THE vaunted launch of a taxi industry-owned airline, Santaco Airlines, has come to naught, except for painting a Boeing 737-200, branding its interior and renting it for a single day.
The maiden South African National Taxi Council flight, with a plane-load of politicians — including President Jacob Zuma — and dignitaries from Johannesburg to Bhisho in the Eastern Cape in 2011, has turned out to be nothing but a false start.
The cost of fuel alone, without considering the price of the rental, would have been pushed to nearly R150 000.
Three years on, the promise of a low-cost airline aimed at those who use public transport remains a pipe-dream.
Now KwaZulu-Natal Violence Monitor Mary de Haas, representing concerned taxi associations, is peppering Parliament and the government for answers and for clarity on who funded the flamboyant first flight (see sidebar).
One aviation expert said this week that the airline’s first flight was nothing but a publicity stunt and that the airline did not exist.
Founded in 2001, Santaco’s has been bankrolled by the National Department of Transport and purports to be an umbrella governing body for taxi associations across the country.
According to the Department’s 2012/2013 Annual Report, Santaco’s has received R21 176 000.
A Weekend Witness investigation revealed:
• the branding bedecked Boeing 737-200 was leased for only one day from Star Air Cargo and the deal was commissioned by Santaco;
• the taxi association funded the cost of branding the exterior and interior of the plane, as well as uniforms for attendants;
• the deal only ever encompassed one flight; and
• Santaco and Star Air Cargo never concluded a deal going forward, with the sole flight effectively being a “once off”.
Star Air Cargo has a Part 121 Domestic and International Aircraft Operating Certificate (AOC) and specialises in the leasing and operating of Boeing aircraft on short to medium-term leases to scheduled airlines in the sub-Saharan Africa.
Flight operations manager Ismail Hassan confirmed that his company and Santaco had parted ways. “That was just a once-off flight to Bhisho and there is no existing contract between our company and Santaco. All the branding and everything else to do with that flight was for just one day,” he said.
“We don’t have anything active on the cards with them at the moment.”
Star Air Cargo leasing agent Yvonne Anderson too confirmed that the deal was a flash in the pan.
“We have no existing contract with Santaco and it was just getting the plane ready and the one flight. I think you should speak to them,” she said.
She could not be drawn to comment on what the endeavour cost, including branding, leasing and operational fees.
Santaco too closed ranks, refusing to respond to detailed questions posed by Weekend Witness.
Santaco does not have an operational website and the only publicly available information regarding the association is a founding statement on a transport forum, with no listed author.
Calls to their head office were largely unanswered and efforts to speak to the company’s directors were stymied.
The National Department of Transport spokesperson Sam Monare failed to answer questions sent in advance, and could not be reached for comment at the time of going to press.
Pushing for answers
KZN Violence Monitor Mary de Haas is pushing for answers on whether the Santaco airline project had been funded from the public purse.
“I deal with many taxi associations and they came to me with a list of grievances. Among them was the issue of Santaco Airlines,” she said.
“I began to look into the failed airline and the question of who had paid for it arose,” she said.
“To spend all that money, which was likely to have come from the Department of Transport, for a day of political grandstanding is unbelievable,” De Haas added.
De Haas had repeatedly written to parliament asking who had been funding the airline, but her questions went unanswered.
“Now parliament really needs to explain where the money came from, for the launch of an airline that doesn’t exist,” she said.
‘A publicity stunt’
AVIATION Expert and MD of Plane Talking Linden Birns described the inaugural flight as a publicity stunt.
“There is no Santaco Airlines. They have no operating certificate, licence, aircraft, pilots or even crew. It was just a once-off charter flight which turned out to be nothing more than a publicity stunt,” he said.
“The prospect of the airline from the beginning was interesting and it was clear that they were trying to reach a previously untapped market.”
Birns said that striking a balance between supply and demand was where problems had arisen.
“Airline licensing requires a regular and repetitive service between destinations, typically on a weekly or daily basis. But people who would use their airline would likely be migrant labourers commuting to and from the mines once a year.”
“There would not be enough volume to support a 150-seater aircraft flying every day. And if they were to opt for a smaller airframe, the cost per seat would rise,” Birns said.
“Santaco has been suspiciously quiet about this. Whenever a question is asked, they seem to skirt the issue. I don’t think this airline is going to happen,” he said.
SANTACO’s broken promises
• June, 2011: Santaco announce it would be starting a low-cost airline, with the launch expected in September.
• July, 2011: Then Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele welcomed the announcement that Santaco would be launching a low-cost airline.
• September, 2011: President Jacob Zuma and a delegation of ministers and Santaco officials board the inaugural flight on the leased aircraft. At the same time, they alluded to the opening of a bank.
• December, 2011: The launch had been postponed as Santaco was in the process of buying an airline. Tickets were expected to go on sale three months later.
• January, 2012: The festive season launch was aborted and the airline promised to be open for business before Easter 2012.
• March, 2012: The opening date was again revised until the end of the year so that Santaco could monitor the market.
• August, 2012: Santaco CEO Nonkululeko Buthelezi said that he hoped to commence flights by July 2013.
All data sourced from www.southafrica.to/transport/airlines/santaco