Sunday, May 22, 2022

Row over Air Botswana’s re-purchase of 20-year-old aircraft

Embattled Air Botswana was recently embroiled in a fresh controversy after it emerged that they recently purchased a plane that they decommissioned and sold off in 2009 after leasing it out in 1991.

Industry insiders are questioning the wisdom of buying a twenty-year-old aircraft, which AB had written off before, given the mechanical and operational problems that the airliner has been struggling with.

The BAe 146-100 aircraft came to Botswana for the first time in 1991. However, it was returned to its manufacturers after AB’s ambitious regional expansions plan collapsed, leaving the airliner in financial difficulties.

The aircraft undertook numerous routes in Australia in the intervening years, flying for City Jet, Mistral Air, and National Jet Systems. It was later returned to AB in December 2005 after rehabilitation.

AB General Manager, Sakhile Nyoni-Reiling, failed to answer a Sunday Standard questionnaire as to how much the lease cost the airliner.

“The BAe 146-100 will allow AB to increase frequency on services from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Maun, which serves as the gateway to the tourist destinations in the Okavango Delta,” read a statement from AB at the time.

After leasing out the aircraft, AB also signed a ‘spares by the hour’ maintenance and support agreement with Jet Spares. Once again AB management failed to explain the need for the maintenance agreement, and how much it cost.

In the intervening years, AB would face serious operational problems, ranging from incessant mechanical problems, loss of skilled manpower and loss of business. Scores of Chief Executive Officers who were roped in to save the ailing airliner were sacked after failing to turn its fortunes around.

At the same time, government’s plans to get rid of the national airliner through privatisation collapsed after allegations of corruption and collusion among key stakeholders.

SA Air Link, which was the favoured privatisation partner, lost out after a Sunday Standard expos├® revealed how the blue print for the sale of AB was co-authored by SA Airlink boss, Roger Foster, and Botswana’s economic consultant, Nicolas Scypionka.

Cabinet dug in their hills, questioning the logic behind selling the national airliner to a little known South African company. Others were of the view that AB is a national asset that should not be sold, adding that the airliner is of economic importance as it complements other industries like tourism. Moreover, SA Airlink was rumoured to be going through financial troubles.

Faced with a potential loss of the national airliner, government injected over P100 million to recapitalize AB, improve its performance and chart a new road to privatisation.

An experienced airline operator was also roped into AB on a management contract. The AB fleet was also renewed, and the BAe146-100 replaced with BAe 146-200 aircrafts.

The BAe 146-100 was returned to BAE Systems Regional Aircraft. Surprisingly, it has emerged that twenty years after the aircraft first touched ground in Botswana, AB management recently decided to purchase the aircraft once again.

This move was met with indignation by AB insiders and stakeholders from government.
Sakhile Nyoni-Reiling once again failed to explain how much they paid for the aircraft. She also failed to explain why the airliner, which should be looking at improving performance and fleet capacity, would buy a twenty-year-old aircraft that they had gotten rid of before. She also failed to explain how they would deal with the mechanical faults that would obviously come with such an old aircraft, given that it had been problematic before.

“AB has bigger and more capable aircraft. Why would they buy a smaller and older aircraft? This action will obviously derail AB’s efforts to improve profitability, safety records and overall performance,” said irate AB insiders.

However, Sakhile Nyoni-Reiling and Transport and Communications Minister Frank Ramsden said the decision to re-purchase the aircraft was made after serious consultations between all stakeholders.
“AB is pleased with the performance of its BAe146-100 aircraft. The aircraft is in excellent condition and is entirely fit for its purpose. Fast, comfortable and reliable, the 75-seat four-engine jet is also proving popular with passengers,” said Sakhile Nyoni-Reiling.

While AB initially got rid of the aircraft in favour of a bigger one, they now insist that it is best suited to the premier route between Johannesburg and Maun as it can operate within the infrastructural constraints of Maun Airport.

“The aircraft is cost effective, because it is now owned and not leased,” said Nyoni-Reiling.

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