Airlink to connect PE, Mthatha


South African Airlink,the regional airline that last month shed routes after falling foul of the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) is expanding again. The Eastern Cape government has announced the business will fly between Port Elizabeth and Mthatha from Friday, February 26.

Eastern Cape MEC for Transport, Safety and Liaison Ghishma Barry says Airlink will also re-introduce its service between East London and Port Elizabeth on February 22. Airlink had to rationalise routes after SACAA grounded its BAE Systems Jetstream 41 (J41) aircraft fleet (13 aircraft) just before Christmas citing safety concerns. SACAA late last month re-issued the aircraft their airworthiness certificates. Around the same time Airlink also received four Embraer ERJ 135 jets it had leased to offset the loss of the J41 fleet.
“This is good news to us as this historic introduction of flights between Port Elizabeth and Mthatha marks the realisation of our vision, which is clearly articulated in our Blue Skyway aviation strategy,” Barry added. In the interim, people will be served at a new R6.2 million prefabricated temporary building adjacent to the terminal building, which will soon be upgraded as part of the Mthatha Airport Upgrade project phase one.
“This means that three of our airports (East London, Mthatha and Port Elizabeth) are now ready to contribute to the provincial growth and development plan. The remaining challenge is to make sure that all four airports in the province complement each other as there is no significant international aviation node in the province. East London, Mthatha and Port Elizabeth regional airports are currently unable to accommodate big aircraft like the Boeing 747 and Bhisho airport is the only one capable to do so,” she added.

The Eastern Cape Department of Transport further intends to have an airline between Cape Town and Mthatha via Bhisho. An important goal is to link Port Elizabeth to Mthatha via Bhisho with the service geared for faster movement between these three areas, “especially with the 2010 FIFA World Cup around the corner.” Port Elizabeth is the province’s only host city.

The new flights follow closely on the return of Airlink to Mthatha. The airline suspended flights there last month after navigation beacons broke down. “Two service providers, SIA Solutions and Excellec Systems, have been working around the clock to fix the landing system at Mthatha Airport with the main challenge being to get some outstanding spares due to the fact that the airport’s system is too old as it dates back to the 1970s,” the department said in a separate statement.

The situation was exacerbated by bad weather patterns in the Mthatha area. “The Eastern Cape Department of Transport [that owns the facility] would like to express its sincere gratitude to all the passengers, who despite the inconvenience understood our challenge,” the statement added.
“This emergency repairs operation will now be followed by a major overhaul of the system in order to meet the world standards. A service provider has been appointed for this project and the new system has been procured from the United States of America. This project will run concurrently with the upgrade of the Mthatha Airport by three Mthatha based construction companies with a particular focus on … [a] terminal building upgrade, civil works and fencing. The main aim is to improve the capacity, use and management of the airport as a viable economic asset that contributes positively to tourism in the region.” Fencing is particularly important – it has not been uncommon for landings to be aborted because of cattle on the runway.
“As part of the long term preparation of the airport, the department has appointed a contractor to do the overhaul of the entire landing system in line with phase one of the Mthatha Airport Refurbishment project, which is currently underway. The upgrade will enable the airport to accommodate late flights. The lighting upgrade has been completed and inspected by SACAA, which then issued a night rating for Mthatha Airport.
“Discussions with other sectoral stakeholders have indicated that this upgrade will provide assistance in the promotion of tourism in the eastern half of the province, especially in the Wild Coast region.”