Following a 24-hour precautionary grounding of Comair (South Africa) (CAW, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo), the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), on March 13, announced it was now indefinitely suspending the airline's Air Operator's Certificate (AOC) pending it addressing all of its regulatory concerns.

The airline said the regulator was reviewing “certain policies, systems, and procedures”.

The SACAA said the suspension followed a visit to Comair to investigate and determine "the cause of a spate of occurrences affecting a concerning number of flights operated by Kulula Air (Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) and British Airways/Comair". "Just in the past month, Comair operations experienced occurrences ranging from engine failures, engine malfunction, and landing gear malfunctions, amongst others," the SACAA said. Its inspection sought to confirm "compliance with applicable Civil Aviation Regulations (CARs). The inspection was also aimed at reviewing Comair’s quality control management system (QC) and safety management systems (SMS) to establish compliance related to reporting, analysis, and follow-up on occurrences, and corrective action plans to prevent a recurrence".

Comair Chief Executive Officer Glenn Orsmond was not immediately available for comment. He earlier told ch-aviation that Comair would be moving its maintenance from South African Airways's subsidiary SAA Technical to Lufthansa Technik.

Comair operates the British Airways franchise in South Africa and its own kulula low-cost brand. The airline, which is still in business rescue, had hoped to be flying again by 1200L (1000Z) on March 13, according to a statement issued late on March 12.

“On March 11, 2022, Comair responded to the SACAA’s concerns raised that day but was then asked to provide additional documentation on March 12, 2022." Comair said it had been advised of the 24-hour suspension to its licence on the morning of March 12. "That afternoon the CAA requested additional information, which Comair provided overnight and into the early morning of March 13, 2022."

Still, on March 13, the SACAA announced it was suspending Comair indefinitely despite having accepted certain corrective actions and evidence submitted; and while still evaluating the rest of the documentation submitted by the airline throughout the night.

“The inspectorate team worked through the night to review the evidence received and as at 0630L (0430Z) on the morning of March 13, 2022, the regulator accepted the corrective action and evidence submitted in respect of one Level One finding. This, therefore, means this finding is now closed.”

“The review of the rest of the evidence of which the latest was received around 0730L (0530Z) this morning, will continue to be assessed and reviewed by the inspectorate this morning.” It said Comair was legally entitled to appeal the decision of the suspension.

Comair said it had received an acknowledgement from the SACAA that the information provided had been received, but no other formal communication had been received to date. "In the interim, the CAA has issued a press release saying it will be reviewing and assessing the documents provided,” said Orsmond.

“This is a huge blow to our customers, employees, and the flying public as it effectively takes 40% of the capacity out of the market. The implications for the aviation sector and the country are considerable should the suspension continue for any length of time.”

He said the airline was continuing to engage the SACAA in a bid to get the suspension lifted but has been forced to cancel flights indefinitely as it cannot say when this may be. “Our priority now is to assist passengers who have been stranded. We have chartered two aircraft to assist vulnerable passengers and those who most urgently need to travel.”

The SACAA said its inspection had resulted in the regulator raising "three Level One findings, and one Level Two finding". "In terms of the oversight philosophy of the regulator, a Level One finding is an outcome which poses an immediate risk to safety and security, and it must be closed with immediate effect and a Level Two finding must be closed within seven days,” it stated.

“The SACAA is fully committed to ensuring that the operator is back in the air and has dedicated a full team to assess and review the evidence as it gets submitted. The commitment to safety, in this case, supersedes any other need and this is to ensure that South Africa maintains its safety record of having zero fatal airline accidents in over 30 years on South African soil,” the SACAA said.

The SACAA’s reputation took a knock in recent years when it was found to have contravened its own aviation regulations before the crash of its Cessna S550, ZS-CAR (msn S550-0078), in January 2020. Amongst other things, South Africa's Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AIIB) found the aircraft was not maintained properly, rendering its certificate of airworthiness invalid.