The owners and pilots of at least seven VIP aircraft who ignored repeated requests to move their aircraft at King Shaka International Airport north of Durban on Wednesday ahead of a World Cup semifinal match are to be investigated with Minister of Transport S’bu Ndebele saying he will “throwing the book” at whoever is responsible for a pile-up of planes that saw hundreds of fans miss the game.
At least 40 chartered aircraft, carrying around 200 wealthy businessmen, have been blamed by airport officials for the snarl. “The problem was with the private jets and aircraft that refused to move on the ground. They refused to make space for commercial flights and emergency aircraft,” a furious Ndebele told The Times. “An investigation is under way through the Civil Aviation Authority. The investigation will look at why the pilots refused a lawful order to move their aircraft.”
He compared the actions of the pilots to “parking in front of an ambulance” and refusing to move. “They [were] blocking emergency flights from getting in and allowing aircraft to run out of petrol in the sky. It is illegal, what they did.”
Earlier yesterday, Airports Company of SA (ACSA) operations director Bongani Maseko said “arrogant” foreign and local pilots of the South Africa-registered private aircraft had dropped the businessmen at King Shaka two hours before the semifinal kick-off. They then refused to move from parking bays at King Shaka to the decommissioned Durban international airport. The Airports Company is threatening the pilots and owners who refused to move their aircraft with unspecified penalties.
But the chairman of the World Cup local organisation committee, Irvin Khoza, blamed the massive delays after 6pm on Wednesday on unnamed “heads of state” who attended the match, The Times added. “Of all the games, there was no incident or hitch in terms of transportation. There was only the one delay. Because of the heads of state, there were implications. Free-fly zones were required for 50 minutes’ and this had a knock-on effect,” Reuters reports him saying at a briefing in Johannesburg yesterday afternoon.
Though responsibility for the debacle is being kicked around like a football, Gidon Novick, chief executive of Comair, which operates Kulula and British Airways flights, threatened a lawsuit against ACSA and Air Traffic Navigation Services on behalf of his passengers.
Maseko denied reports that the preferential treatment of VIPs led to the delays, maintaining that all pilots were told of the landing procedure at King Shaka. “Pilots knew well in advance that they would be given 20 minutes to land, drop off their VIP, then take off to the old airport to reposition. There was never an issue of miscommunication,” he said. “The procedure worked well throughout the day. Then, at 6pm, several private aircraft landed and the pilots refused to move out of the parking spaces.”
Maseko said that, by 6.30pm, there were 75 aircraft with nowhere to land. He had to intervene personally and negotiate with the pilots of three aircraft, who refused to move. “They finally agreed to move but each plane took at least 15 minutes for start-up and clearance, so the delay just continued.” An official at King Shaka, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said pilots of the 40 aircraft had the “audacity” to switch off their engines and lock themselves in their aircraft, or had left them locked and unattended.
This caused five passenger aircraft operated by Mango, Kulula, British Airways and SAA, from Cape Town and Johannesburg and carrying at least 1000 South African, Spanish and German fans, being turned away.
Maseko said none of the aircraft could be redirected to the decommissioned airport because there were not enough staff to handle the landings. The King Shaka official, who saw the businessmen arrive, said there was not a well-known face among them.
A series of unfortunate events
The Daily News reports in Durban that ACSA says the airspace congestion was due to a series of events. First, the Central Airspace Management Unit system failed between 4am and 8am on Wednesday which resulted in manually allocating slots on a first-come-first-served basis. “Private operators took advantage of the situation, in certain instances taking up slots not allocated to them, thus beginning the domino effect,” said ACSA spokesman Solomon Makgale.
Second, between 5am and noon the airport experienced lower than planned and expected arriving aircraft traffic. “Aware of the game in the evening and the higher than normal air traffic volumes expected, and the airport management requested prioritisation of all flights with slots carrying soccer fans and Fifa family due to attend the semi-final soccer match in Durban,” he said.
Third, as traffic picked up, weather-related restrictions were imposed at noon, leading to another 20-minute delay. Makgale said as a result of the increase in traffic volume, airspace restrictions were imposed, which meant that no aircraft could depart for 30 minutes.
Fourth, was the blame on eight private aircraft operators who had landed at the airport but failed to listen to requests to re-locate their aircraft to the old airport.
Ruters reports ACSA CE Monhla Hlahla has officially apologised for the airport disarray, “a rare blemish on the so far successful hosting of the World Cup, held on the continent for the first time, which has gone without any major glitches.”
“We have decided that we will put aside a small amount of money to the tune of 400,000 rand to compensate (passengers),” she told Talk Radio 702. This might not be enough to compensate many fans, Reutrs says. Some said they spent up to R30 000 rand on flights and match tickets. Stranded passengers, who spent thousands of rand on flight and match tickets, were outraged by the mismanagement that led to the problems.
A German soccer fan was due to appear on court on Friday for allegedly assaulting a cabin crew member after realising that he would miss the much anticipated match after his plane was diverted to Port Elizabeth, officials said. “He behaved in a violent manner towards a crew member and will appear in court today,” said Mthunzi Mhaga, spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority.
ACSA said it would ensure there would be no repeat of the problems during the World Cup final at Soccer City in Johannesburg on Sunday when Netherlands face Spain. If aircraft refuse to move, the company threatened to tow them out of the way to clear the landing and airport space.