South Africa's troubled civil aviation sector is facing a new storm with the disclosure on Monday (12 November) that none of the country's estimated 10,000 commercial and general pilots and about 14,000 aircraft are properly licensed.
The disclosure, by Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of South Africa president Koos Marais, will raise questions about pilot competency and aircraft safety.
In common with several other official agencies, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) - which regulates aviation safety and security - has been headed by an acting director for more than 18 months, who does not have the authority to issue or renew licences.
While this may be regarded as a legal technicality, in the event of an accident, an insurance company or a foreign government may claim that a South African pilot or aircraft was not properly licensed, Marais said.
Since January last year, Zakhele Thwala had been director of the CAA in an acting capacity.
"Thwala's acting appointment was extended in January, but this is against the law which says a person may not be appointed for more than a year in an acting capacity," Marais said.
Thwala was suspended by former transport minister Sbu Ndebele in June on unspecified charges. He was replaced by Poppy Khoza, who is also working in an acting capacity.
The Commercial Aviation Act says all South African pilots and aircraft have to renew licences annually and these have to be certified by the director of the CAA.
"If the director was not properly appointed then it means those licences are not valid," Marais said. "We have approached the CAA and the Department of Transport, including the former minister, on several occasions and have received no reply."
CAA spokeswoman Phindiwe Gwebu said all business conducted by the authority under any acting director was valid. "We are not sure where this claim comes from as all official hiring and firing is done by the minister."
Gwebu referred inquiries on the appointment of a permanent director to the department, which did not respond.
Comair said it had expressed concern about the loss of "critical" skills at the CAA to the transport ministry, through the Airlines Association of Southern Africa.
"The fact that the CAA operated with an acting director does have potential legal implications regarding whether actions taken during that period are legally binding, despite all normal processes having being followed for the likes of pilot and aircraft registration. However, this is a legal technicality," Comair said.
The airline said it was concerned about the loss of experience at the CAA and how it was going to fill vacancies.
Airlines Association of Southern Africa Chris Zweigenthal said his body had been in contact with the CAA about procedures and other issues, but had yet to receive a reply. "We know the CAA has been in transition for a number of years. But the validity of the licences should not be in doubt."
Despite legislation passed in May 2009 providing for an independent Aviation Safety Accident Board, this responsibility has also remained with the CAA.
"South Africa is at odds with international practice by not yet having separated out its aviation accidents investigations from the CAA," said aviation commentator Linden Birns.
"When an Airlink airliner aquaplaned and overshot the runway at George Airport in November 2009, the CAA had to criticise itself for having no standards concerning the effective sealing of runways against wet conditions," he added.
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