South African Airways Technical.jpg South African Airways Technical

MRO Irregularities Force SAA and Comair To Ground Aircraft

South African Airways and Comair had to ground aircraft due to irregularities at its MRO provider.

At least two South African carriers--South African Airways (SAA) and Comair--had their operations disrupted on Oct. 22 after the regulator found “irregularities” at SAA maintenance subsidiary SAA Technical (SAAT).

Several aircraft were grounded after the South African CAA (SACAA) found shortcomings at SAAT, as part of its normal oversight activities. The nature of the irregularities was not disclosed.

“During the audit, the SACAA sampled a few aircraft, which were subsequently issued with a prohibition order, meaning these aircraft could not operate until such time they had addressed the non-compliances,” the CAA said.

SAAT submitted a corrective action plan (CAP) to the CAA and this has since been approved. However, as a precautionary measure, the CAA directed several airlines--including Mango, Comair and SAA--to conduct a “verification exercise” to check that no further aircraft were affected.

“If any of the aircraft is deemed not to be safe to fly, then the operator is expected to correct any non-conformities and ensure that the affected aircraft are not flown before the necessary corrective measures are undertaken,” the CAA said.

Following this notice, several airlines self-grounded some of their fleet, disrupting operations.

SAA said it was operating an amended flight schedule on the morning of Oct. 22, delaying some flights and combining others onto larger aircraft. At least four domestic flights were cancelled as a result of the additional checks.

British Airways (BA) franchise carrier Comair, while also operates as LCC kulula, said around one-third of its services were affected on the morning of Oct. 22.

“We are working closely with SAAT to rectify the findings and getting our flights back on schedule as soon as possible,” Comair said, stressing that the aircraft could not be flown until corrective action had been carried out. “We are actively working with SAAT and SACAA to find a speedy solution.”

By around 1000 local time on Oct. 22, four aircraft had been released back into service. In a later update, Comair executive manager flight operations Deen Gielink said normal operations were expected to resume by the morning of Oct. 23, with the full fleet returning to service.

Before this incident, Comair had already taken a decision to transition its line-maintenance activities from SAAT to Lufthansa Technik (LHT) over the next 12-18 months, after signing a long-term agreement with LHT.

In a recent one-to-one interview on Oct. 11, Comair joint CEO Wrenelle Stander told Aviation Week that the move was caused by problems with SAAT’s reliability and inventory management.

“We’ve never had issues over their technical competence,” Stander said on Oct. 11, but she added: “Having aircraft late on the ground is not an efficient use of the asset.”

Comair operates 26 Boeing 737-400s and -800s. The airline has eight 737 MAXs on order and has taken delivery of just one aircraft when the type was grounded earlier this year. Five of the eight MAXs have now been deferred for delivery in 2024-25.

This means, in the 2020 financial year, Comair will need to perform 10 C Checks, a series of landing gear changes and some ADS-B modifications on its 737-400s. This is because Comair now plans to retain some 737s originally scheduled for retirement, because of the knock-on effect of the MAX grounding. 

Currently, SAAT performs around 50% of Comair’s heavy maintenance, with the remainder being performed overseas. In the longer term, Stander said Comair could bring some heavy maintenance in-house, following its acquisition of Star Air Maintenance and Star Air Cargo.

The Oct. 22 disruption marks a further blow for SAAT, just a few weeks after the company was reported to have used fake maintenance components.

Parent company SAA strongly refuted those allegations on Oct. 10. “The board of directors of SAA wish to state categorically that the airline’s maintenance division SAAT did not and does not use fake parts when servicing aircraft belonging to Mango Airlines, or any other airline it services. We wish to assure customers that all components and parts are procured from approved suppliers and all supporting documentation complies with SACAA requirements on components.”

The reports surfaced after a Mango Airlines Boeing 737-800 experienced a stabilizer trim motor failure while climbing on Sept. 2, causing a turn-back. SAA said the component that failed was legitimately procured from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). The failure, which is being investigated by the OEM, occurred after 96 flights and 125 hours of operation.

“None of the independent oversight audits that Mango has performed over SAAT over the years have at any stage given rise to any finding as it relates to traceability of parts,” SAA said.  

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