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Comair operated British Airways and kulula flights in SA. Picture: SUPPLIED
Comair operated British Airways and kulula flights in SA. Picture: SUPPLIED

The FM penned a scathing critique of Comair in March, “How Comair made a bad situation worse”, after our flights were temporarily suspended by the SA Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). It made for painful reading, but the magazine was right: airlines depend on the trust of their passengers, and this is as much about open and clear communications as it is about maintaining a spotless safety record.

We should have communicated more clearly and engaged directly with the media. We dropped the ball, and we will not repeat the mistake. Our customer communications were also not up to the standard our clients expect of us, and that we expect of ourselves. We have reviewed where we went wrong, and we will do better.

As the FM correctly mentioned, Comair had achieved 74 years of uninterrupted profits before air services were suspended in March 2020 because of the Covid lockdown. It went into business rescue in May 2020 and this process required reduction of costs.

Savings were achieved on staff headcount, staff costs, overheads and leases. We reduced our headcount from 2,200 pre-Covid to 1,200. No costs were cut relating to safety. We operate a safe, viable airline and no cost cutting will ever compromise this.

Aircraft maintenance is highly regulated and is performed and approved by the FAA  (the US Federal Aviation Administration) and the EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency). Our maintenance provider is Lufthansa Technik, one of the most accredited in the world and offering the highest quality; it is also approved by SA’s CAA.

We have a proud 75-year safety record, and will continue to maintain the highest levels of aircraft and passenger safety. This is non-negotiable and it is important to note that the CAA made no negative findings on our flight operations, our aircraft or our flight technical standards. To quote the CAA, the findings related to “change management risk assessment processes in our safety management system”.

Aviation is a highly regulated industry, and for good reason. Regulators the world over take a highly precautionary approach and all airlines have suffered groundings at some point, normally where defects are discovered on specific aircraft types or engine types, which require inspections before groundings are lifted.

We treat every intervention by the CAA with the utmost seriousness. Nevertheless, when the CAA suspended kulula and British Airways flights in March its findings were more about administrative processes and risk assessments, not our aircraft, nor the skill of our pilots, nor our maintenance. At no point was any passenger’s safety compromised, and the regulator made no findings that suggested this. While we accept the findings, we do not believe these justified the airline licence being suspended.

It is gratifying to note that daily sales immediately reverted to the normal pre-suspension levels once the CAA gave us the all-clear. This is an indicator of the strength of our two airline brands, and our loyal customer base.

Comair operates 38,000 flights a year with 20 jet aircraft. It carries more than 4-million passengers a year, and has about 40% of the domestic market, generating more than R5bn annually. Our pilots are well trained and superbly skilled, and our historical on-time performance is over 90%.

In short, while we have been through a tough period lately, which we did not handle well, Comair is a wonderful business.

We have excellent staff, a modern fleet, excellent maintenance, good sales and distribution channels, low operating costs and enjoy strong lender and investor support.

Comair is well funded and well positioned to take advantage of the recovery of travel markets. Globally, short-haul domestic travel is recovering rapidly from pre-Covid levels, and we see this happening now in SA.

This trend is good news for the travel industry in SA and it is critical that our airlines are able to play their role in supporting the recovery.

We at Comair have taken some hard lessons from this experience and we are grateful for the continued loyalty of our passengers. We are working hard to repay their trust.

*Orsmond is the CEO of Comair

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