Fikile Mbalula. Picture: SOWETAN
Fikile Mbalula. Picture: SOWETAN

It’s about seven months since Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 went down outside Addis Ababa, killing everyone aboard.

That tragedy, together with another crash in Indonesia in October 2018, resulted in 346 deaths and shook confidence in US manufacturer Boeing. Its reputation is in tatters and its flagship 737 Max jets remain grounded.

While it’s unclear when the aircraft will fly again, it is doubtful whether the lost confidence among airlines and passengers will be clawed back.

But Boeing’s travails are only a small part of the story. The biggest is the tragedy of 346 lost lives, with unanswered questions about what executives knew about problems with a new light-control feature that seems to have been a factor in the crashes.

It took two days for the minister to give the country something resembling a clear answer.

And then there was the role of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US government body that regulates civil aviation, and its allegedly cosy relationship with Boeing, probably partly borne from the existence of a revolving door in appointments between the company and the regulator.

The FAA was slow in recommending the grounding of the Max jets even as countries banned them from their airspace, giving rise to speculation that the regulator was concerned more with Boeing’s commercial interests than public safety. A subsequent report flagged concerns such as the number of certification tasks delegated to manufacturers and questioned the qualifications of some FAA employees overseeing Boeing.

Which brings us to matters closer to home. While thankfully  no aeroplane fell from the sky and nobody died, the events around the grounding of aeroplanes this week will be greatly concerning to those South Africans who take to the sky.

Transport minister Fikile Mbalula and the SA Civil Aviation Authority (Sacaa) should be ashamed of their handling of the crisis, which they still fail to describe as such. To describe the communication as diabolical would be an understatement, while the complacency displayed by Mbalula in his Tuesday press conference is breathtaking.

It took two days for the minister to give the country something resembling a clear answer, eventually disclosing on Thursday that it was partly due to unqualified technicians signing off maintenance work at SA Airways Technical (SAAT), which services and maintains the fleets of airline companies including SAA, Comair and Mango.

Audit results had revealed findings “that put into question the airworthiness status of the said aircraft”, was all the transport ministry would say when the news of the groundings first broke. For what it’s worth, a spokesperson for Sacaa was more forthcoming, telling a radio station that staff without all the requisite qualifications had signed off work.

One would have to assume that Mbalula was aware of this when he called a press conference on Tuesday and declared that there was no crisis in aviation but failed to give “specifics” about what had led to the grounding.

After all the years of state capture and the destruction of institutions and state-owned companies, perhaps it’s natural for an ANC cabinet minister to think that unqualified people signing off the maintenance of aircraft carrying thousands of people daily is no big deal.

In 2018, Comair, one of SAAT’s biggest customers, already signalled its loss of confidence by moving some of its work to Lufthansa, a change it will phase in over two years. It also bought its own heavy maintenance capacity.

While Mbalula said there was no crisis, Sacaa CEO Poppy Khoza, in justifying the incompetent communication, said one didn’t “discuss aviation safety and security when there’s an imminent danger at your doorstep, you act and this is exactly what we do”.  

But if the imminent danger that could potentially kill hundreds in one incident is not a crisis for Mbalula, we would like to know what is.