Comair, a South African airline which owns the low lost carrier kulula.com and operates as a British Airways franchisee domestically, began to fly again on Thursday March 17, after being grounded for five days.
Comair’s Air Operator Certificate (AOC) was indefinitely suspended by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), which had found several lapses in the safety mechanisms during its audit. SACAA lifted the suspension on Wednesday, March 16.
Five days after beginning an audit, SACCA had suspended the Comair’s AOC for a period of 24 hours on March 12, “following an investigation into the recent spate of safety incidents at the Operator.”
SACAA’s investigation had “yielded three level 1 findings, and one level 2 finding”, as the Authority’s statement noted, adding that “a level 1 finding.. poses an immediate risk [and] must be closed immediately and a level 2 finding must be closed within 7 days.”
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) said in a statement on March 13: “We are not surprised at these unfortunate developments as we have been warning the airline from within, of the dangers of their cost cutting measures and that this would eventually have the impact of compromising safety standards, by not giving their aircraft enough ground time for proper maintenance.”
Later that day, after Comair failed to address the three immediate risks within the stipulated 24 hours, the SACCA extended the AOC suspension indefinitely.
Demanding the resignation of Comair’s CEO Glen Orsmond, NUMSA staged a picket outside Comair’s office on Tuesday, March 15.
“We believe that Comair is where it is today because Glen Orsmond has run the organization into the ground, by implementing such severe cost cutting measures, that the safety of the airline has been compromised,” said NUMSA in a statement.
The union pointed out that the Comair staff have been reduced from 2,500 workers to 1,300 workers. On March 1, another section 189 (retrenchment) notice was issued, as the company plans to further reduce its staff.
NUMSA said “Up until December last year, workers were earning only 70% of their salaries.” The company also unilaterally withdrew several benefits from the already underpaid staff.
“But all these draconian measures have achieved is an overworked staff, and the grounding of the airline due to compromised safety standards,” the union said.
“Our members wish to pass a vote of no confidence in the CEO and his executive to protect their jobs and livelihoods which are threatened by management decisions that put profits over people and people’s livelihoods.”
Business rescue continues
The company has been undergoing a business rescue process since May 2020. As of yet, it is unclear when or how this will conclude. Under business rescue, a financially distressed company is protected from claims by creditors, while the Business Rescue Practitioners (BRPs), who exercise control, work out a turnaround strategy to render the company financially viable.
Citing financial stress due to losses from the grounding of flights at the time due to COVID-19 pandemic, Comair had placed the company under business rescue in May 2020, without consulting with labor.
NUMSA argues that the painful restructuring resulting from the rescue was planned by the company well before the pandemic. NUMSA, which had been resisting this plan, had said in a statement at the time that “this is [just] another example of a private company using the COVID-19 pandemic in order to justify restructuring of the organization, for their own commercial gain.”
The cost-cutting restructuring that followed the rescue has been so extreme that the safety of Comair flights is also compromised, according to NUMSA. The union pointed to incidents of engine failures, emergency landing and an alleged case of “failure in landing gear”.
“Going forward the board of Comair must heed the warning and take drastic measures to turn this airline around.. putting people ahead of profits,” NUMSA wrote in a statement on March 17, welcoming SACAA’s decision to restore Comair’s license on March 16 after lapses in safety were addressed.
“The extreme cost cutting measures, implemented by Glenn Orsmond cost the airline its operating certificate. At the same time the airline cannot continue to be under perpetual business rescue – these issues are intertwined. This is why we continue to demand Glenn Osmond’s resignation on the basis that his management decisions almost caused the airline to crash land.”