By Johan Pretorius
Ray Nkonyeni Municipal Manager Max Mbili says the municipal council and community sincerely appreciate the meaningful and successful contribution of the airline Cemair in boosting the tourism of the region by reviving the route between OR Tambo International and Margate. Reacting to a question from eHowzit on the way forward in an extremely difficult and sensitive situation now that Airlink wants to reinstate its service, which it terminated in 2009 because it ‘was not economically viable’, Mr. Mbili said council would apply its mind when considering the request. There could be no specific response until the municipal council had taken a decision.
Judging from discussions with senior municipal officials and councillors it is clear that the municipality finds itself in a very difficult position. They say it is difficult to forget that after lengthy negotiations with Airlink five years ago on reinstating its service, and a firm commitment from the airline to do so at a specific date, it reneged on its undertaking, which came as a disappointing shock. Subsequently, after an unsuccessful attempt by the charter service Studio 88 to operate regular flights on the route, Cemair was prepared to take the risk, and over three years methodically and skillfully built up and grew an extremely popular flight schedule which has done wonders for tourism in the area and easy accessibility for business travellers to OR Tambo International. Cemair’s involvement gave Margate airport a new lease of life and in the process has become ‘part of the Hibiscus Coast community’, one official said, ‘and now Airlink wants to come and cash in after treating us badly.’
Aviation experts are unanimous that there is no way two airlines can operate profitably on this route, and that a decision in favour of a second operator would inevitably result in one of the two, or eventually both, after a protracted battle for passengers, ceasing operations. On the other hand, they concede, we have a free economy and a monopolistic situation cannot be encouraged. An extremely difficult decision has therefore to be taken by the municipality, ‘in the best interests of the community’, as Mayor Cynthia Mqwebu stated in the Exco meeting on Tuesday.
The National carrier Airlink has asked the Ray Nkonyeni Municipality for permission to start a passenger service between OR Tambo International and Margate airport.
During the meeting of the municipal executive committee on Tuesday, Airlink CEO Roger Foster, flanked by CFO De Villiers Engelbrecht, gave a comprehensive verbal and video presentation of Airlink’s history and capabilites as an airline. He pointed out that Airlink was a privately owned business of many years standing as well as a franchisee of South African Airways which flew to a network of destinations in Africa and South Africa. As South Africa had a free market system, Foster said, Airlink would like to have access to Margate airport, which was in the public domain, and provide an air service to the public, based on free market principles. He acknowledged that there were challenges to be overcome, such as accomodation for staff and several other airport related issues, but was convinced there would be no major obstacles.
In reply municipal officials and Exco members pointed out that Cemair had already established a popular and efficient service between OR Tambo and Margate over the past three years, which was a major factor to be considered. Mayor Cynthia Mqwebu referred to negotiations with Airlink about five years ago when the municipality did everything possible to convince it to reinstate the service Airlink had discontinued in 2009 because they deemed it not economically viable anymore. After lengthy negotiations Airlink agreed reinstate the service at a set date, only to shock with its sudden announcement that it was not going to do so. This was a major disappointment which did not go down well with the municipality. There were also several questions to be answered about various issues, Mayor Mqwebu said, amongst others flights to Cape Town and Port Elizabeth mentioned by the CEO, before decisions could be taken. The guiding principle, however, would be which future route would be in the best interests of the community.
HOD for Development Planning Siya Zama stated that clarity would have to be sought on for instance flight schedules, use of the check-in and customer service counters, accomodation for Airlink staff, security equipment and various other aspects. He asked for a comprehensive submission by Airlink on exactly what it envisaged.
On Tuesday afternoon, after the Exco meeting, the Ray Nkonyeni Municipality issued the following statement:
The municipality would like to clarify that, as the public entity, it provided SA Airlink with an opportunity to present its proposal. It did not engage with them to conclude an agreement for an additional airline operating at Margate Airport. All the questions and comments that were made by members of the Executive Committee inclusive of the Management Component in today’s Executive Committee Meeting were purely questions or comments aimed at getting more clarity on their presentation, as well as to express their feelings on the dealings with Airlink during the tenure of the then Hibiscus Coast Municipality.
The Municipality also wants to emphasise that the issue of whether there is a need or not for an additional airline is something which will be dealt with separately from the presentation made by SA Airlink. The municipality further emphatically states that it respects the relationship it has with the airline currently operating the Margate Airport to OR Tambo International Airport route, CemAir. But at the same time it would not want to paint a monopolistic picture about Margate Airport.
The municipality pleads with everyone to respect its stance on this particular matter, and not to misrepresent any of the facts as set out above. Any developments regarding to whether there is a need for an additional airline or not, will be communicated appropriately.