A Mango aircraft takes off from King Shaka International airport. Picture: SUNDAY TIME/TEBOGO LETSIE
A Mango aircraft takes off from King Shaka International airport. Picture: SUNDAY TIME/TEBOGO LETSIE

Unqualified technicians’ signing off shoddy maintenance work were part of the reason 46 aircraft were grounded earlier this week, transport minister Fikile Mbalula said on Thursday.

The grounding followed an oversight inspection by the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) at SA Airways Technical (SAAT), which services and maintains the fleets of airline companies including SAA, Comair and Mango.

The authority ruled that the affected aircraft could not operate until issues of “noncompliances” flagged in the inspection had been addressed.

Mbalula said at a media briefing held at OR Tambo International Airport that the SACAA inspection resulted in five findings relating to noncompliance.

He said two of the five findings related to the “unqualified personnel releasing or signing off maintenance work” and maintenance checks on flight data recorders and voice recorders that had not been done correctly.

Mbalula said that after the irregularities had been uncovered the SACAA directed SAAT, Mango, Comair and SAA to conduct verification exercises on their fleet to ensure that “in terms of these irregularities, their aircraft are indeed airworthy”.

Mbalula said Sacaa was processing evidence submitted by all the airlines to determine whether it is safe for them to continue operate their fleets.

The rest of the non-compliances related to administrative issues and a lapse in quality management systems, according to Sacaa CEO Poppy Khoza, who was part of the media briefing, together with Airports Company SA COO Faith Sithebe and Sacaa chair Ernest Khosa.

Of the 46 affected aircraft, 12 came from Comair, the operator of Kulula and domestic British Airways flights, 25 from SAA and seven from Mango.

Khoza said 40 planes had since been released back to service. She said SACAA had competent inspectors who were professionals, air traffic controllers, aircraft engineers and pilots.

“These are not people taken from the streets. We are firm, we are fair and we act without fear or favour ... Our interest is aviation safety and security,” she said, adding that they were not being dramatic in grounding the planes.

Mbalula echoed Khoza, saying: “The SACAA is not dramatic. It acted in the interest of the people. Everything is under control, we are acting in the best interest of our people. The regulator must execute its mandate without fear or favour.”

He said it was normal for the SACAA to ground aircraft, noting: “We should not be overly concerned when this happens. But when it happens on a large scale it should be properly communicated. Grounding airlines happens for various reasons.”

In 2018, the SACAA grounded SA Express for what it said were severe cases of noncompliance that posed serious safety risks, and privately owned airline company CemAir for allegedly operating some of its aircraft outside permissible loading limits.

However, the Civil Aviation Appeal Committee ruled in April that the grounding of CemAir’s entire fleet of 21 planes during the December 2018 and January 2019 holiday season was irrational and factually wrong, and was set it aside.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za