The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party says the defence department’s handling of the questions surrounding the back-up aircraft used to shadow President Jacob Zuma’s Boeing Business Jet (BBJ) has been a complete fiasco. The defence department does not seem to be able to get its story straight, David Maynier, the party’s shadow defence minister says.
It was reported last week that a Boeing Global Express XRS was chartered from a private company to “shadow” the presidential Boeing Business Jet. The second aircraft was used as backup in case mechanical failures were experienced by the presidential jet. “Now it emerges that not one, but two aircraft were used to ‘shadow’ … Zuma … during his recent visit to the United States. The second aircraft, a 250-seater, four-engine Airbus A340 (200 Series) was chartered from and operated by South African Airways (SAA).”
Maynier says an SAA Airbus A340 SA 2205 departed Oliver Tambo International Airport Johannesburg on Monday January 9 to “shadow” the presidential BBJ to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. The presidential BBJ then proceeded to New York, “shadowed” by the Global Express. The aircraft, now SA 2206 then returned from Las Palmas to Oliver Tambo on Tuesday January 10, arriving back early in the morning on Wednesday. Maynier notes the aircraft was carrying six pilots and eight cabin crew (three of the pilots were effectively passengers, since they had flown SA 2205 on the outbound route from Oliver Tambo…) The three relief pilots and eight cabin crew had flown to Las Palmas independently via Frankfurt, Germany, and stayed there for two days waiting for the aircraft, with passengers were “bumped off” the SAA flight to Frankfurt in order to make space for the standby crew.
“How is it that an empty 250-seater, four-engine monster of an aircraft like an Airbus A340 (200 Series) was used as a back-up aircraft to shadow President Jacob Zuma on his trip to the United States? I would be surprised if the combined cost of operating the three aircraft did not cost upwards of R10 million,” Maynier said in a statement yesterday. “It is simply mindboggling.”
On Friday, after several days of denial, the defence ministry finally confirmed reports that the Global Express had shadowed Zuma’s Boeing Business Jet on its way to New York last week. The day before, ministry spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya rubbished reports that the shadow aircraft had landed at JFK International shortly after the presidential jet touched down, claiming this aircraft had flown only as far as Las Palmas on the Canary Islands, where it had waited to accompany Zuma on the return leg. However, Chief of the Air Force Lieutenant-General Carlo Gagiano told journalists in Johannesburg Friday afternoon that the Bombardier had indeed flown to New York and blamed the conflicting information on a “miscommunication” between himself and Mabaya. The Saturday Star reported Mabaya, in denying that the shadow plane had gone to New York, may have confused the Bombardier charter flight with the SAA charter.
Gagiano said the military had a responsibility to uphold SA’s prestige by transporting the president safely and on time to international engagements. “(VIP transport) is extremely complex and important to the international image of the country… Who will make the (UN) speech if the President can’t make it?” he asked. Gagiano also cautioned reporters against suggesting the air force’s planes were unsafe. “My passengers are now nervous because they read in the papers how unsafe our planes are… They stress because they think, ‘when is this aircraft going to fall apart?'”