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SAA to operate emergency evacuation flights

State airline SAA will from this week temporarily resume international operations to evacuate foreigners from various countries who are stuck in South Africa after the lockdown commenced last Friday. 

The Mail & Guardian has reliably learnt the airline is in discussions with several countries about the possibility of operating special commercial charters for tourists, students, workers, and other non-South Africans who could not secure space on flights out of the country when South Africa went on national lockdown last Friday.

The lockdown, which is in effect from March 26 to April 16 and saw the total closure of all ports and the limiting of non-essential travel inside the country, was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa last Monday as part of the state of disaster regulations to stem the spread of the deadly Covid-19 disease

The latest figures, issued by the government on Saturday night, showed that confirmed infections then stood at 1 187. South Africa has recorded one fatality.

The directive meant that all airlines operating in South Africa cancelled all domestic, regional, and international flights during the lockdown period. 

Internal communication from the beleaguered airline’s business-rescue practitioners to workers at the airline over the weekend shows SAA has been approached by a number of countries that have asked that it to provide flights for its citizens.

Sources inside SAA and the Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) confirmed that they have been placed on standby for the temporary opening of the OR Tambo and Cape Town international airports. They said that, because most staff are working from home, there would need to be 24 hours’ notice to allow the various airport stakeholders to come into play.  

The M&G understands that several countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany, have citizens stuck in South Africa  and that their embassies were making arrangements at the time of the lockdown for their accommodation or repatriation. 

Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula said in a press briefing on Thursday that he would approach the National Command Council for permission to allow the emergency flights to take place this week. 

On Sunday, Mbalula said the government had been approached by the United States, the UK and Germany with requests to evacuate their citizens. 

“We are in a meeting right now; I don’t think there will be a problem. “We will issue new directives to allow foreigners to depart,” he said, adding that he was not privy to discussion between the countries and SAA.

Mbalula’s office also announced that minibus taxis would be allowed to operate from Monday March 30 until Friday April 3 to accommodate social grant recipients, after a request from Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu.

Communication from SAA’s business-rescue practitioners to staff over the weekend revealed that the state airline would soon restart international operations, albeit on a temporary basis. 

“It is for this reason that we have been engaged with various governments on how SAA can support them in providing passage of their citizens to their various home countries. More importantly, these engagements have required the approval of authorities in our country, and such approval include that we maintain the health and safety measures applicable for commercial airlines to deal with Covid-19,” the communication said.

“Following these engagements with the various foreign governments and the South African government, SAA has decided to reopen our international flight schedule, albeit on a limited basis, in order to accommodate these requests with flights to operate from both Cape Town and Johannesburg,” said written correspondence from the SAA rescue practitioners.

They said the flights will not accommodate individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19, and that all passengers would be subject to the screening protocols — as required by South African authorities — prior to departure. “Any passengers that present flu-like symptoms will not be allowed on any of these flights,” they said.

The rescue practitioners added: “It is the responsibility of SAA and the South African government to ensure the health and safety of our employees and citizens. It is for this reason we would like to assure all our people that we will do all that is in our power to ensure your safety during these trying times.

“We also recognise the difficult situations that many non-South African citizens find themselves in as a consequence of the pandemic while in a foreign country. These include anxiety, loneliness, fear, despair, being stranded, lack of adequate support systems, [et cetera]. It is for these reasons that their respective governments have taken these steps to take their people to their homes.”

Acsa, through a spokesperson, said it had not received notification from the government about the need to open any of its airports. 

SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali could not be reached for comment on Sunday. The article will be updated with his comment once it is available. 

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Sabelo Skiti

Sabelo Skiti is an investigative journalist.

Thando Maeko
Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian

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