Mbalula must account for communication blackout

Issued by Chris Hunsinger MP – DA Shadow Minister of Transport
11 Dec 2022 in News

Note to editors: Please find attached English and Afrikaans soundbites by Chris Hunsinger MP

The DA will lodge a formal request to Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula to explain the circumstances following what appears to be a collapsed aviation communication support system under the control of Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS), an entity under the Department of Transport.

Aviation stakeholders reported the loss in transmissions by the controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC), between aircraft and the Johannesburg Oceanic flight information region (FIR) control centre, stating that there is no contact available via either of the two conventional communication methods. The CPDLC system which works like SMS communication on cellphones is used by aircraft to communicate with ground control staff and vice versa.

The collapse of this system also revealed that the back-up system which is a conventional High Frequency Voice-communication system has been broken and not repaired for close to a year. Without both systems pilots and ground control had no way of communicating with each other.

This communication “blackout” raises serious concerns with regard to air traffic safety and is a serious breach of the international obligation which South Africa and ATNS must uphold for aviation safety in three different flight information zones.

The airspace which has been delegated to SA by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, should be treated with the utmost responsibility as a global stakeholder in the global aviation industry. Safety, of which communication and ground support are integral parts, cannot be compromised.

Power outages are an ongoing issue in South Africa and while airports remain unaffected, directly the CPDLC outage coincided with a breakdown of several ESKOM powerplants. Mbalula will need to give assurance that this was not as a result of loadshedding.

While fruitless and wasteful expenditure at ATNS has had an annual year-on-year increase over the last four financial years, ending with a loss of R378 million in the past financial year, they intend to approach the government for financial support. In former years ATNS showed cash reserves of over R1.5 billion.

The DA will demand reasons why this communication breakdown has occurred and why this wasn’t repaired immediately. Why the backup system wasn’t available and what are the reasons for not having this fixed? The DA will also enquire why ATNS hasn’t published its Contingency Plan to help pilots work out what to expect when flying through our oceanic airspace while not being able to contact air traffic control (ATC).