Johannesburg - The SA Civil Aviation Authority (Sacaa) and the transport department on Wednesday denied allegations of corruption over the exemption granted to SA Airways for its ultra-long flights to New York.
In a joint statement, they denied colluding with SAA, as was alleged by the SA Transport Workers' Union (Satawu).
"... [A]ll these entities operate independent from one another, with different mandates," said Sacaa and the department.
SAA had applied to conduct "ultra-long range" flights more than a year ago, said Sacaa spokesperson Kabelo Ledwaba.
"This application was approved, even though SAA did not use the said exemption," he said.
"Because that approval had expired, they were required to submit a new application and this was received by the Sacaa on April 12, 2011."
Ledwaba said that according to civil aviation regulations, the director could exempt an applicant from any requirement prescribed in the regulations if satisfied that the requirement was substantially complied with.
An applicant could also be exempted if further compliance was unnecessary; events occurred which made the requirement unnecessary or inappropriate; and if granting the exemption would not jeopardise aviation safety.
Ledwaba said that after consideration, acting director of civil aviation Zakhele Thwala granted permission for the exemption on April 28, provided that SAA complied with all safety requirements.
"At the time of issuing the exemption, Sacaa believed that it would be possible for the operator to meet the prerequisite conditions and requirements."
He said that in instances where permission was granted, Sacaa would follow up with the operator to ensure the stipulated conditions had indeed been met and implemented.
Ledwaba said it was "unfortunate" that Satawu had made its concerns public before Sacaa could conduct a follow-up, but it would still do so.
"The Sacaa's mandate is to ensure that the industry operates safely and securely whilst ensuring the functioning and development of the same," he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Satawu spokesman Zenzo Mahlangu said the ultra-long flights showed "a flagrant disregard" for the safety of passengers and crew members.
"Satawu condemns the exemption granted to SAA to operate ultra-long flights."
He voiced Satawu's "disappointment and fury" at Sacaa and the transport department for authorising SAA's direct flights from South Africa to New York.
Mahlangu said that these flights exceeded the allowable period for safe operation of flights, known as the flight and duty period.
The CAA granted SAA an exemption from this period on condition that the flight safety training manual be evaluated and approved, and that proof of fair flight rostering practices was supplied.
Satawu said that the latter had not been met.
"We will vigorously campaign for the nullification of that irregular exemption granted in favour of SAA," Mahlangu said.
He said Satawu believed that corruption and collusion could be behind the exemption.
SAA spokesperson Dileseng Koetle said the airline "strongly rejected" the unfounded suggestions.
"SAA would not undertake any operation that would put its customers at risk. Our decision to operate directly from Johannesburg to New York from 1 May 2011 was in full compliance with CAA regulations," she said.
The decision was made to cater for customers who preferred to take a direct flight and it had involved more than a year of planning.
"... The implementation of this route is in line with global market trends, and keeps the airline competitive with other international premier airlines that have respected safety records...," Koetle said.
She said the flights would contribute to the long term economic growth of both South Africa and the continent.
SAA was open to discuss Satawu's concerns, Koetle said.