Jet “cost effective” says police. Not so, counters DA


The police and the Democratic Alliance are today sparing over the cost effectiveness -or otherwise – of a R150 million Cessna Citation C680 Sovereign executive jet purchased last year to transport the Special Task Force to hostage scenes and the like.

Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa yesterday told the National Press Club in Pretoria that the aircraft was recently used to ferry a special task team to a hostage drama at the Mangaung Correctional Centre outside Bloemfontein where three warders had been taken hostage by prisoners.

“This is an operational jet, it has been used several times in hostage [situations],” Mthethwa told journalists.

The South African Press Association said the Citation was also used during the April elections to deploy police to possible violence hotspots identified through intelligence.

National police commissioner Bheki Cele’s new spokeswoman Nonkuleleko Mbatha also defended the purchase, saying the team sent to Mangaung “intervened after 14 hours in hardly five minutes. It’s through these resources that police are able to respond,” she said.

Mbatha said the jet cost about R8000 an hour to operate. This included fuel and landing fees. Last year the maintenance bill for the jet – bought in February – amounted to R152 000.

Mbatha said it needed to be put in perspective that commercial planes were serviced every 200 hours, while the jet was serviced every 400 hours. “That’s what makes it cost effective.”

She said for police to travel from commercial airports, using a local carrier and with the fixed check-in times, limited their effectiveness to get to an emergency quickly. Mthethwa said the Citation – and other police aircraft – were better suited to this task as they were able to land on small airstrips.

“South African Airways – they are not going to be able to land in certain situations,” she said.

But DA police shadow minister Dianne Kohler-Barnard rubbished the figures. She says the police “needs to familiarise itself with the operating costs of its own private jet.”

Kohler Barnard says the jet’s manufacturer, Cessna, puts the minimum cost per hour of the Citation Sovereign at R13 664. “And according to industry experts that the DA contacted yesterday, this would rise to nothing less than R30 000 when factoring in the array of additional expenses associated with operating it in South Africa.”

She says Mbatha is claiming the SA government “is managing to operate this jet at just 58% the cost at which it is commercially advertised, and at 27% the cost that industry experts tell us is a bare minimum figure for operating the plane in South Africa.

“This looks suspiciously like ‘arms deal mathematics’,” she adds, in reference to offset calculations in the 1999 Strategic Defence Package that economists described as “voodoo”.

“Even more ridiculous is the fact that the commissioner’s spokesperson has, according to reports, claimed that the jet is “cost effective” because commercial planes need to be serviced twice as often as his department’s private jet. Well, quite. The point is that you don’t need to buy commercial planes in order to use them.

“Indeed, if this private jet has been used once every week since it was bought, and an average of four people used it each time, then the total cost per person for each trip to date, incorporating both initial and ongoing running costs, would amount to R460 000, or approximately 70 times more than the cost of a corresponding business class air ticket on commercial flights.

“According to calculations based on information supplied by both the manufacturer and industry experts, it is reasonable to believe that the total running cost of this jet would have amounted to about R13 million to date. How exactly is that ‘cost effective’?

She also described as “nonsense” the assertion that the aircraft is “operational”, can land on short runways.

“First, as the jet is equipped with only one wheel on each wing, it would be dangerous to land it on a gravel runway, and it can only land and take off from tarred runways of at least 1069 metres. This means that it could only land on a handful of landing strips in the country.

“Second, this is a private business jet. It is not designed for operational purposes, but rather as a mode of transport for, in the manufacturer’s own words ‘the savvy business traveller’.

“The business jet seats no more than nine, meaning that any unit using it for any operational intervention would be severely understaffed in most situations. If South Africa is relying on a private business jet to fly units to the scenes of incidents, then we have a serious problem. International best practice is for units to be flown from the nearest regional base by helicopter, allowing them to land a short walking distance from the target of their operation. The Oryx helicopters used by the SANDF could serve this purpose more than adequately.

“Each of these points has been verified by industry experts, including a former member of a military hostage rescue team,” Kohler Barnard added.

“Put simply, there is no excuse for this kind of indulgence, when regular commercial flights are available for routine movements of government staff, and the SA Air Force is available for more urgent operations.

“The fact of the matter is SAPS resources are dwindling – as we have seen in the last week, backlogs at forensic science laboratories are at record highs, lost case dockets are at record highs and compliance with the police watchdog is at a record low.

“In these circumstances the police ministry ought to acknowledge that an error was made, and that state funds need to be spent more prudently in future.”