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Wonderboom Airport Management Debacle

On Thursday 30 January a Notam was issued by the CAA effectively closing the airport for a period of two weeks. This in itself posed a serious safety risk to aviators that were airborne especially solo students that may have been out on solo nav’s at the time. An Embraer 110 was on a short repositioning flight from OR Tambo and was forced to divert to an alternate airport at massive cost to the operator. The reason for this drastic action was the uncut grass alongside the runway posed a serious safety risk as the runway lights and PAPI’s were completely overgrown after months of absolute neglect.

To truly understand what led up to this embarrassing occurrence one has to travel back two years to the day Professional Aviation Services (PAS) were appointed to manage the then third-busiest airport in South Africa. PAS was parachuted in to manage Wonderboom, without any previous experience of managing an airport, by city official Nava Pillay. Pillay simply informed tenants that the Roads and Transport Department would no longer manage Wonderboom.

The first casualty of PAS was the fuel supply system, that had finally been rectified the previous year after years of battling with inexperienced BEE “Middlemen” who grossly overcharged on the odd occasion they actually had fuel on the premises. The fuel crisis at Wonderboom resumed and tenants were once again forced to make their own arrangements for fuel. The Avgas and Jet-A1 is uploaded from tankers parked on an open patch of land a few kilometres away from the airport. Tenants phone them to order fuel which is delivered to the hangars by a bakkie pulling a small bowser. All the while the ten aviation fuel bay officials appointed by management have been doing nothing, as no fuel is available at the airport.

Shortly after PAS took up the reins at Wonderboom the lucrative contract with SA Airlink was lost, at the time it was reported that the loss of the contract was due to "political instability in the Metro".

In a report compiled by the City of Tshwane's oversight committee for roads and transport submitted to the City of Tshwane council in October 2019 revelations were made as to the shocking state of the Wonderboom National Airport. The report including allegations of "irregularities, maladministration and governance lapses" at the once proud facility. Allegations of embezzlement, non-compliance with international and domestic aviation standards and states that Wonderboom "is an asset in serious need of attention by an authority higher than the City". The oversight committee sets out, in devastating detail, at least 37 reasons why an urgent forensic investigation is needed.

Among the committee's most damming findings are:

Approximately R15 million for the construction of a hangar and training centre appears to have been "embezzled".

R3 million was spent on the construction of a lift which to date has not materialised.

R800 000 was spent for the construction of a wall "which the PAS has no clue about".

There is no occupational health and safety certificate for the airport.

A hangar which was supposed to be for maintenance and used as a depot can't be used because of bad construction. And the list goes on…….

PAS decided to walk away from and subsequently left Wonderboom at the end of December 2019. This, after a last desperate, yet unsuccessful attempt to gain the backing of the airport tenants by asking them to write letters of support to the metro council. Under the “leadership” of PAS Wonderboom was downgraded from Category 5 to Category 2 status because of non-compliance with aviation laws. This happened barely three months after PAS’s fee was increased by more than 300%.

When PAS departed many hoped the rot would be stopped but unfortunately the present controversies seem to indicate otherwise. On the day Wonderboom was downgraded, Tshwane Mayor, Steven Mokgalapa and MMC for Roads and Transport Sheila Senkubuge, announced that the airport would be commercialised and they would appoint Ntiyiso Aviation Services (Pty) Ltd to act as a “transactional advisor”, a company only registered last year. Their experience and ability to manage the embattled airport is being seriously questioned.

When the Wonderboom Airport Interest Group (WAIG) approached the Ntiyiso Aviation newly appointed manager, Ian Melamed, to raise their concerns about issues that need attention at the airport, including the safety hazard caused by the length of the grass around the runway. His response was to issue a WhatsApp message informing all tenants that the airport will be closed. “Please be aware a NOTAM (notice to airmen) will be issued at 15:45 today (Thursday) announcing the closure of the airport to traffic due to the serious risk factors at the airport”. The notam was issued but was later changed to allow flights at own risk but prohibiting night operations.

On Wednesday 5 February 2020, the urgent application brought by the Wonderboom Airport Interest Group (WAIG) against the City of Tshwane Municipality (CTMM) and Ntiyiso Consulting was heard by the Honourable Judge Ranchod in the High Court, Pretoria.

Ntiyiso Consulting was appointed as the transactional advisors to the City for Wonderboom Airport. WAIG’s concerns are that Ntiyiso Consulting is now acting as Airport Managers which they believe is out of their area of expertise and the scope of what the relevant legislation allows.

It was argued on behalf of WAIG that it is evident that the applicable processes were not followed to appoint Ntiyiso Consulting in any capacity at Wonderboom National Airport. Ntiyiso Consulting gave notice that they would abide with the court’s decision. The CTMM did not respond within the time period set by the courts. The judge refused to accept the late filing of the City’s response.

The relief sought was an interdict to suspend the appointment of Ntiyiso Consulting, inter alia pending a judicial review of their appointment.

Members from the WAIG called an emergency meeting where funds were raised to secure a contractor to cut the grass. The contractor arrived with all their equipment and were not permitted to enter the airport premises.

Wonderboom Airport manager Ian Melamed said the city, through consultants, had arranged for the necessary grass-cutting to be completed. He added that the message which told airmen about the airport’s closure to traffic was not out of the ordinary. “Every week we stop the traffic to check the runways,” Melamed said. He explained it formed part of ensuring safety at the airport.

On Saturday 8 February twenty six tractors and eighty two slashers descended on the airport and within hours the grass had been cut, a source at Wonderboom however informed Flightline Weekly that the contractor was charging the City of Tshwane a whopping R5 per m² where the contractor brought in by WAIG would have charge 10 cent per m². The grass seriously in need of cutting was approximately 40 000m² which equates to a whopping R200 000 compared to R4 000, That in itself raises many questions.

Over 2000 jobs and all businesses ranging from charter companies to flight schools and maintenance organizations at the airport are being severely affected by all the disruption affected. We will be watching closely and hoping for a favourable outcome.


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