The operating licence of British Airways’ franchise partner, Comair, has been suspended by the Civil Aviation Authority in South Africa (“SACAA”).
Comair was forced to cancel all flights on Saturday. The SACAA suspended Comair’s operating licence following a number of safety incidents. These included engine failures, engine malfunction and landing gear malfunctions.
Three of these incidents were described as a “Level 1” finding. This is considered an immediate risk to safety and security that must be closed immediately.
The suspension was initially described in a statement by the SACAA on Saturday as precautionary, pending a response from Comair that it had effective risk and safety management systems in place.
This decision was reached following an investigation into the recent spate of safety incidents at the Operator. This is a precautionary suspension for a period of 24 hours, within which the Operator must demonstrate to the Regulator that the risk and safety management systems are effective in managing potential hazards.
Just in the past month, Comair operations experienced occurrences ranging from engine failures, engine malfunction and landing gear malfunctions, amongst others. In the interest of safety, the SACAA visited the Operator to investigate and determine if Comair is in compliance with applicable Civil Aviation Regulations (CARs). The inspection was also aimed at reviewing Comair’s quality control management system (QC) and safety management systems (SMS) to establish compliance related to reporting, analysis and follow-up on occurrences, and corrective action plans to prevent recurrence.
The outcome of the investigations yielded three (3) level 1 findings, and one (1) level 2 finding. In terms of the oversight philosophy of the Regulator, a level 1 finding which poses an immediate risk must be closed immediately and a level 2 finding must be closed within 7 days.
Failure of the Operator to produce satisfactory evidence to the Regulator, led to the decision to impose a precautionary suspension of the operations in order to give the Operator an opportunity to demonstrate that their systems are able to prevent and avert safety hazards.
The Operator has until tomorrow morning, Sunday, 13 March 2022 to meet the requirements from the Regulator, failing which the approval will be suspended indefinitely, pending the satisfactory closing of the findings.
Comair issued statements on Saturday to advise that it was working urgently with the regulator to resolve the matter as soon as possible. It had originally planned to resume flights from 12:00 local time on Sunday.
The SACAA suspended Comair flights on a precautionary basis on 12 March 2022 for 24 hours after a review of certain policies, systems and procedures.
On 11 March 2022 Comair responded to the SACAA’s concerns raised that day but was then asked to provide additional documentation on 12 March 2022.
“We are doing everything possible to get the suspension lifted. We continue to engage constructively with the CAA and are working hard to provide the CAA with the additional information it requires,” says Comair CEO Glenn Orsmond.
The SACAA issued a further statement on Sunday morning to advise that the operating licence has been suspended indefinitely. This is pending a review of further evidence and a resolution of outstanding issues.
A review of one of the incidents identified by the SACAA has been closed.
Following the 24 hour precautionary suspension of Comair PTY Ltd.’s Air Operator Certificate (AOC) privileges on Saturday morning 12 March 2022, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) confirms that the AOC is now indefinitely suspended pending the Operator addressing all the findings as communicated by the Regulator on Saturday morning.
The SACAA recognises the efforts of the Operator to close the findings as speedily as possible and in this regard the Operator started dispatching the evidence to the Regulator from the evening of Saturday 12 March 2022. The inspectorate team worked through the night to review the evidence received and as at 06:30am on the morning of 13 March 2022 the Regulator accepted the corrective action and evidence submitted in respect of one Level 1 finding. This therefore means this finding is now closed. The review of the rest of the evidence of which the latest was received around 07:30 this morning, will continue to be assessed and reviewed by the inspectorate this morning.
According to the Civil Aviation Regulations (CARs), the Operator can appeal the decision of the suspension to the Director in terms of Part 185.04.2.
The suspension follows the visit by the SACAA to the Operator to investigate and determine the cause of a spate of occurrences affecting a concerning number of flights operated by Kulula.com and BA Comair. The SACAA sought to confirm Comair’s compliance with applicable Civil Aviation Regulations (CARs). The inspection was also aimed at reviewing Comair’s quality control management system (QC) and safety management systems (SMS) to establish compliance related to reporting, analysis and follow-up on occurrences, and corrective action plans to prevent recurrence.
This resulted in the Regulator raising three (3) level 1 findings, and one (1) level 2 finding. In terms of the oversight philosophy of the Regulator, a level 1 finding is an outcome which poses an immediate risk to safety and security, and it must be closed with immediate effect and a level 2 finding must be closed within 7 days.
The SACAA is fully committed to ensuring that the Operator is back in the air and has dedicated a full team to assess and review the evidence as it gets submitted. The commitment to safety in this case supersedes any other need and this is to ensure that South Africa maintains its safety record of having ZERO fatal airline accidents in over thirty years on South African soil. The lives of our aviation personnel and the users of civil aviation services is paramount, and it is a responsibility the Regulator does not take lightly.
This discipline in ensuring high levels of compliance with civil aviation safety and security is demonstrated by the continuous prestigious performance of South Africa in international safety and security assessments. South Africa is periodically subjected to independent international audits by bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to measure South Africa’s compliance to the Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) of this United Nations body. In this regard, South Africa was last audited by ICAO in 2018 in terms of the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme – Continuous Monitoring Approach (USOAP CMA) and the country improved its compliance levels in that audit. Continuous improvement is a principle which the Regulator will work hard at elevating as it ensures that aviation remains the safest mode of transport in this country.
Comair subsequently issued a statement on Sunday advising it cannot confirm when flights will restart:
Comair is unable to confirm when it will start flying again as the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has indefinitely suspended its operating licence until such time as the SACAA has had time to review and satisfy themselves that the items are closed.
This is despite the airline working through the night to provide documentation the SACAA had requested following a review of certain policies, systems and procedures.
Comair was advised of a 24-hours suspension to its licence on the morning of 12 March. That afternoon the CAA requested additional information, which Comair provided overnight and into the early morning of 13 March 2022.
“We have since received an acknowledgment that the information has been received, but no other formal communication has been received to date. In the interim the CAA has issued a press release saying it will be reviewing and assessing the documents provided,” says Glenn Orsmond, Comair CEO.
“This is a huge blow to our customers, employees and the flying public as it effectively takes 40% of the capacity out of the market. The implications for the aviation sector and the country are considerable should the suspension continue for any length of time.”
He says the airline is continuing to engage the SACAA in a bid to get the suspension lifted but has been forced to cancel flights indefinitely as it cannot say when this may be.
“Our priority now is to assist passengers who have been stranded. We have chartered two aircraft to assist vulnerable passengers and those who most urgently need to travel.”
Response From BA
Comair is a long standing franchise partner of BA and has historically had a good reputation.
Indeed, it is the airline’s only current operating franchise partner. Comair was gradually rebuilding its route network having entered a business rescue process and suspended all flights in 2020. As a consequence of this, BA is no longer a shareholder in Comair.
BA, and the Safety, Environment, and Corporate Responsibility Committee of its parent company IAG have a right of oversight over safety compliance and incidents at franchise partners.
At the time of publication, it’s not clear what involvement IAG or BA has in the action by SACAA, or what its response this latest development in terms of its ongoing relationship with Comair may be.
Update Monday 14 March 2022
BA has confirmed it is offering long haul passengers whose connecting flights on Comair are cancelled a rebooking onto AirLink or South African Airways.