Airlines, ACSA trade claims about George airport


Airlines and the Airports Company of SA are trading conflicting claims about the safety of the runway at George airport in the southern Western Cape.

The Sunday Times reports the two-kilometre runway is “so dangerous that it no longer meets international requirements, according to a preliminary report prompted by an accident there late last year involving an Airlink plane,” while Business Day adds it and other airlines are likely to pursue multimillion-rand claims against the Airports Company SA for business lost and damages caused.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) last month said it was perplexed by the December 7 incident. “A friction test was … performed on Monday, February 15 and the results indicated that the runway friction is within the prescribed limits,” SACAA said in a statement. “This presents a challenge when viewed against the fact that the data from the aircraft flight data recorder indicates that all systems appear to have functioned normally (inclusive of the brakes and the anti-lock braking system) and the approach and landing profiles and speeds were within normal limits. It is clear that something had to cause the overshooting of the runway at the time and the cause has to be identified in order to prevent a recurrence of the same accident.”

The Airlink Embraer 135 Commuter Jet (ZS-SJW) with 30 passengers and three crew members aquaplaned on the runway while landing in bad weather at George Airport in the south-eastern Western Cape just after 11am local time. The aircraft came to rest 200 metres past the runway just beyond the perimeter fence of the airport, its nose across the R102 road that skirts the airport.

George is the country’s sixth-biggest airport with 600 000 passengers a year. The Sunday Times reports ACSA “flatly denies that there is anything wrong with the runway – and, instead, has blasted Airlink’s poor accident record.” Airlink last year suffered a spate of accidents and incidents in a three month period that led to the grounding of its BAE Systems Jetstream 41 fleet.

The paper says ACSA has confirmed, however, that the runway will be resurfaced before the World Cup in June – “not as an admission of guilt, but in the interests of all affected parties. We are confident about the safety of our runway at George airport – yesterday, today and for the 2010 Fifa World Cup,” said ACSA spokesperson Nicky Knapp.

SACAA issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) on February 23 saying commercial operators will be allowed to use the runway in wet conditions, provided that the aircraft type can safely take off and land with a 30% reserve distance available for the existing runway length. “This will enable any aircraft equipped with fully functional thrust reverse and anti-skid braking systems to safely stop on the runway with minimum risk in the event that any adverse friction condition is encountered.”

Business Day says this has resulted in practice in numerous commercial flights being diverted or turned back, “causing huge disruption to airlines’ schedules and passengers.” The Sunday broadsheet adds Airlink believes its aircraft aquaplaned owing to a sub-standard runway. A series of landing tests last week “confirmed a problem with the runway’s drainage – one of the concerns noted in the report – raising doubts about the airport’s readiness for the World Cup, which starts in 81 days, during one of the Cape’s wettest months of the year.”

But ACSA “is demanding additional tests to confirm that the runway is safe and wants the civil aviation authority to lift the wet-weather ban on large aircraft, which has caused flights to be diverted to other airports at considerable expense to the airlines. Knapp said a series of friction tests had repeatedly shown the runway was compliant with national and international standards,” the paper noted.

Major security concerns raised in the George runway report – written by Dr Stephen Emery, one of the world’s leading runway experts – include:

The runway is too slippery for landing in wet weather, apparently owing to large puddles that do not drain properly;

The runway has no “runway end safety areas”, as required by international aviation law;

Instead of a safety area, the runway leads onto a concrete embankment and a slippery grass slope descending to a public road – both considered hazardous obstacles; and

Shortly before the December accident, the entire runway was treated with a “fog spray”, described as “not normal engineering practice”.

The report, commissioned by Airlink underwriters, Marsh Aviation, also urged “urgent maintenance” to prevent further accidents, the Sunday Times reported. On Friday SACAA said George runway safety concerns were related to drainage, not runway construction. Gidon Novick, joint CEO of Comair, which manages the Kulula fleet, said: “What is becoming clear is that there is something that needs to be fixed (at George). There was a resurfacing effort done last year – that’s obviously the piece of work that is not up to scratch. The obvious question is: why was it only picked up now?”

Comair joint-CE Gidon Novick told Business Day it is vital “that we resolve this problem as soon as possible.” Novick added it would be presenting ACSA with a bill for costs relating to disruption to its schedule as result of the CAA restrictions. “Over the past three months we have had to inconvenience passengers by diverting to other airports in wet conditions.” Airlink MD Rodger Foster said the airline’s priority was to work with the CAA and ACSA to get its schedule back to normal “and would consider what, if any, claims it would make, once the restriction at George airport had been lifted.”