Four SA Airlink incident in three months

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The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) is increasing its supervision over regional airline SA Airlink following four incidents involving its aircraft in three months, while the transport ministry is mulling grounding the airline.

“The Commissioner for Civil Aviation [Captain Colin Jordaan] is concerned about the recent number of accidents/incidents involving this airline,” SACAA spokeswoman Phindiwe Gwebu.

This after a SA Airlink Embraer 135 Commuter Jet with 30 passengers and three crew members aquaplaned on a runway while landing in bad weather at George Airport in the south-eastern Western Cape just after 11am local time yesterday morning.

The aircraft came to rest 200 metres past the runway just beyond the perimeter fence of the airport.

SA Airlink says all three crew members and seven passengers were sent to hospital for observation. All were discharged by mid-afternoon. None were injured save the first officer who suffered a sprained ankle, spokeswoman Karin Murray said. The transport ministry in comments carried by the state Bua news agency said five people suffered “minor injuries.”

Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele says he is concerned about SA Airlink’s safety record after four incidents in 10 weeks.

“They must tell me why they should not be closed down. And we are preparing to close them down until they improve their safety. We are sending a notice to Airlink today,” he reportedly told Eyewitness News this morning.

The Civil Aviation Authority added that Ndebele would have to send them a written directive to have SA Airlink planes grounded.

According to Bua Ndebele this morning sought to assure prospective passengers that airline travel in SA was safe. “We want to assure all those who make use or intend making use of air travel in South Africa that our planes and airport infrastructure are safe.
“There have been two isolated incidents of runway excursions in the past weeks, but there is nothing to panic about. South Africa has one of the best air safety records in the world,” he said.

Ndebele added that runway excursions were a worldwide problem and were being aggressively addressed by both aviation authorities and air safety bodies.

Yesterday’s incident follows a SA Airlink flight carrying Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai having to turn back to Johannesburg while on its way to Harare on November 24 after developing a technical fault.

A week before, on November 18, a BAE Systems Jetstream 41 with 29 passengers and three crew left the runway and ran on to the grassy verge at Port Elizabeth airport after aborting a take off.

The plane, bound for East London, veered off the runway at 1.30 pm and ended up 40 metres away from the runway. No passengers or crew members on board were injured in that incident, the South African Press Association reported at the time.

On September 24 two pilots, a cabin attendant and a bystander were injured when another Jetstream 41 aircraft crashed into a school yard in Durban’s Bluff suburb soon after take-off from Durban International Airport.

The twin-engined aircraft was being flown back to Pietermaritzburg after a flight on Wednesday. There were no passengers on board. The pilot later died of his injuries. The other pilot and the flight attendant were seriously injured and a worker at the school was slightly injured.

SA Airlink is a franchise of South African Airways and has operated as a network airline serving many of the region’s secondary cities since 1997 using a fleet of Jetstream 41s, BAe Systems Avro RJ85s and Embraer 135s.

The SACAA says it already stepped up its audit programme “over and above the normal safety oversight programme that is conducted on all airlines operating in and into South Africa” for SA Airlink maintenance, operating procedures and pilot training after the Durban crash.

“This programme is ongoing with the full co-operation of the airline’s management. Corrective actions are instituted as and when deficiencies are identified,” Gwebu said in a statement.

SACAA says the aircraft involved in yesterday’s incident fortunately missed the instrument landing system installation at George with the pilot apparently manoeuvring the aircraft to one side when it overshot the runway end. “This meant that the runway was able to be reopened for operations within a relatively short period of time.”

Gwebu says the Authority “is committed to ensuring that the South African air transport environment, which includes the airlines, airports and air traffic control, is as safe as possible at all times. This includes periods of high activity such as the coming holiday season and of course, in the lead up to the FIFA World Cup 2010.

“The SACAA wishes to point out that contrary to prevalent misconceptions, the number of accidents has decreased if compared to statistics at the same time last year. The SACAA further wants to point out that, overall, as a country we generally do not experience problems in the airline operator sector as most accidents involve the general aviation sector – or privately owned aircraft.”

SA Airlink, meanwhile, says it has now appointed an independent expert to review the airline’s safety processes and procedures.

“Safety and the well-being of our passengers, crew and aircraft is our top priority and it is essential that we always operate professionally and safely, says CEO and MD Rodger Foster.

“While we are confident that Airlink complies with South African and international regulation and best practice, if there are gaps, then we want to know where they are and we will implement whatever measures are necessary to close them,” Foster added.

“For this reason, we have approached a recently retired senior SAA expert on airline flight safety, to conduct a thorough and independent review of Airlink procedures and processes. I have called for the net to be cast wide.

“The review will examine numerous aspects including our leadership structure, cockpit resource management techniques, compliance with regulatory and standard operating procedures and training,” adds Foster.

“At the same time, Airlink is also cooperating with the South African Civil Aviation Authority’s (SACAA) ongoing audit of the airline’s operational, maintenance, training and recruiting procedures and processes.

The airline is also assisting the SACAA’s air accident investigation unit, which is leading the probe into yesterday’s aquaplaning incident at George Airport.  The investigation will consider all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, including the weather, condition of the runway surface, the pilots’ proficiency and the operational and service record of the aircraft.

Foster says a recovery team is on site at George Airport and will begin the recovery of the damaged airliner.

“On behalf of Airlink, I would like to offer my sincere thanks to all of the emergency rescue teams, medical personnel and trauma counselors at George for their swift and professional action in attending to the passengers and crew,” added Mr Foster.