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City flights in chaos

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Kimberley business people are losing millions of rands due to cancelled or delayed flights between the city and Johannesburg. In the latest incident, yesterday morning's SA Express flight, which was a hour behind schedule, had to be cancelled due to a technical error. It is believed that the clip that closes the baggage door broke.

KIMBERLEY business people are losing millions of rands due to cancelled or delayed flights between the city and Johannesburg.

Yesterday morning, an SA Express flight, which was an hour behind schedule, had to be cancelled due to a technical error. It is believed that the clip that closes the baggage door broke.

Several businesspeople were stranded at the airport, with the next flight scheduled to leave only several hours later.

Nocci CEO, Sharon Steyn, said yesterday that several complaints had been received from local businesspeople regarding the service offered by SA Express, which operates between Kimberley and Johannesburg.

“One businessman missed a tender, worth more than a million rand, because his flight was delayed and he could not submit the tender documents on time.”

She added that complaints had also been received regarding missed connecting flights and overseas flights.

“People often fly to Johannesburg for the day for important meetings that they cannot afford to miss.”

One businessman said yesterday that he flew up the day before, costing him additional money in accommodation, because he could not rely on the flights from Kimberley to be on time.

“If I want to make sure that I do not miss a meeting, I go up the day before – even though it costs me in accommodation and meals.

“What makes it worse is that we are paying ridiculous prices for the air tickets to Johannesburg. The cost of a return ticket is often the same as a ticket to London – and on the local flight you get a measly packet of peanuts,” he said.

Steyn said that following the barrage of complaints received from members, Nocci had facilitated a meeting with SA Airways. “A meeting was held last week where a representative from SA Airways came to Kimberley. A follow up e-mail, listing the complaints, was also sent to the airline and they have responded on the issues raised. We appreciate the fact that they came to Kimberley and have responded to our concerns, but we hope that their words will be carried out into actions.”

Steyn said that the airline had indicated that it would look at additional flights from the city as well as how it could sort out the situation regarding the delays and cancellations.

“We appreciate the fact that if there is a technical problem, they cannot put the passengers at risk but we feel very strongly that they cannot make their problems our problems. They need to work out a back-up plan because this isn’t something that happens infrequently, it happens all the time and it is unacceptable.

“We also appreciate the fact that the meeting was very positive and that they gave us follow-up feedback.”

According to Steyn, among the issues raised with the airline was the flight schedule, including delayed and cancelled flights, the cost of the tickets, the fact that schedules were changed without any notification, meals on the plane and the professionalism of staff.

“The problem is that there is no competition in Kimberley so local businesspeople do not have any other options available.

“However, if the situation does not improve, people will drive to Bloemfontein and fly from there, which will be sad for the city because our airport will then become a white elephant.”

In a recent parliamentary question to the Minister of Public Enterprises, it was pointed out that SA Express last year frequently chartered aircraft provided by Solenta Aviation and SKA Aircraft Leasing, (Golden Wings) to cover the route between Kimberley and Johannesburg.

In her reply, the Minister stated that 115 flights were chartered from Solenta last year for the Kimberley-Johannesburg route, while 141 were chartered from Star Air Cargo, 32 from ComAir, eight from Golden Wings, 10 from Flyfofo-Sahari, and four from Africa Charter Air. The costs incurred by SA Express for the SKA flights was in excess of R2 million.

SA Express is in partnership with SA Airways, which currently has a R9 billion loan due by the end of this month.

The airline has announced that only one lender has asked for a full repayment, with the other loans supported by a government guarantee of R19.1 billion.

“We remain optimistic that the company will meet its loan obligations as these become due through negotiations with lenders and other initiatives,” Musa Zwane, SAA’s acting CEO, said in a statement issued recently.

The troubled airline has committed to a turnaround plan, and recently brought on Seabury Consulting to assist in developing initiatives. In the statement, the airline said that management was “alive to liquidity and solvency challenges that face the business and has taken steps to ensure that the airline remains in business”.

SAA’s financial woes, however, have deepened with the national airline suffering a loss of R734 million last month, just two months into the start of the new financial year in addition to losses of R1.5 billion recorded last year and R4.5 billion in the previous financial year.

The nightmares became more pronounced in Parliament this week when board members failed to attend chairperson Dudu Myeni’s meeting with the standing committee on finance – besides chief financial officer Phumeza Nhantsi.

SAA was on the ropes over the R9 billion in loans with the lenders demanding repayment by tomorrow.

National Treasury said the loans would be extended although there was a financial institution that wanted its loan paid by tomorrow. Reports claimed that Standard Chartered Bank, the British division of Standard Bank, wanted its full amount of R2.3 billion to be settled at the end of the month

But Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane said discussions were ongoing. They had options available and many lenders were open to the idea of rolling over the loans.

“We are engaging with them and we are confident,” he said.

Myeni said they were in talks with a lender over the loan but would not disclose which one. However, it was believed to be Standard Chartered.

She assured salaries would be paid to SAA employees despite MPs’ concerns about the financial status of the national carrier.

Alf Lees of the DA said the airline was in a state of financial chaos and called on the loans to be made public.

Thandi Tobias-Pokolo of the ANC said they would not defend any state-owned entity (SOE) that was not doing well. She said that SOEs must get their businesses back on track.