Mthatha airport in the Eastern Cape has been downgraded by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) from a category 4 to a category 3 level airport. This after SACAA discovered that the airport still has some improvements to make which include rescue and fire fighting services and other upgrades related to technology and emergency systems. The downgrade has forced the two airlines, SA Airlink and SA Express which operate the Mthatha-Johannesburg route, to temporarily suspend operations. Some of the flights had to be cancelled.

The downgrade means that small aircrafts will operate this route carrying less than 40 passengers. The head of transport in the province Irene Mpolweni says some of these issues have been resolved. She says they are waiting for response from the Civil Aviation Authority.

“As I’m speaking today, the manuals they requested have been done and we have couriered them this morning to CAA in Johannesburg. The requested three areas, one was the issue of the fire safety officer that we sorted out, we did an appointment yesterday and the manuals. There were four manuals that were requested. They were done by ABSA who’s assisting us, but were brought in for correction because CAA felt that there were certain areas that needed to be updated and they have been updated on all four manuals. So we will await for their response after they receive the documents.”

South African Express spokesperson, Madikwe Mabotha has urged affected customers to contact the airline for refunds.

“We are working jointly with the Eastern Cape provincial government authorities to find a speedy solution so that operations at the airport can resume. We apologise to our passengers and customers for the inconvenience caused by these cancellations, which are outside of our control. Affected customers are requested to call SA Express Customer Care on 011 978 2355. All booked passengers for the period will be fully refunded.”

South African Airlink says flights from Johannesburg to Mthatha in the Eastern Cape will resume on Monday. Chief Executive Officer at Airlink, Rodger Forster says the airline will resume daily flights using smaller airplanes that meet category three airport criteria.

“Airlink will provide daily return flights using its 29 seat Jetstream 41 aircraft with restricted capacity. Naturally Airlink would like to be offering our normal service to our valued Mthatha customers and we are disappointed that we are prevented from doing so by the airport downgrade. However, we trust that our interim service will satisfy the needs of our customers in the short term, while we encourage the airport to address its operational safety shortcomings as quickly as possible such that the downgrading restriction can be lifted and normal services resumed.”

The provincial transport department says it has issued more tenders to upgrade the Mthatha airport. The department says their goal is to make this airport a level six or seven when upgrades are finished.