South Africa


Last SAA repatriation flight out of Europe leaves 45 behind

An SAA plane. (Photo: Daily Maverick)

SAA ‘disorganisation’ caused many South Africans stranded in Europe to miss a replacement KLM flight.

The last SAA repatriation flight out of Europe ended in chaos this weekend as about 45 stranded South Africans were left behind in Frankfurt when delayed Flight SA 2691 eventually took off on Saturday evening.

Angry abandoned passengers were told they would have to find and pay for their hotels and transport. They said SAA had overbooked the flight. And then a jammed emergency evacuation slide added to the complications, bumping even more passengers off the plane. 

They complained of a generally chaotic organisation by SAA which they said had failed to inform several of the bumped passengers that they had been rerouted via Amsterdam to catch a KLM repatriation flight to South Africa from there. 

Both the SAA flight from Frankfurt via Moscow and the KLM flight landed safely at OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg on Sunday morning and the passengers were moved into the standard 14 days of quarantine.

But the 45 left behind were left still scrambling to try to find their way home. Late on Sunday one said it seemed that SAA had at last arranged for them to fly to Amsterdam to catch another KLM flight to Cape Town on Monday.

This passenger said SAA had also agreed to reimburse them for the costs of their hotels in Frankfurt. She commended SAA staff at Frankfurt airport — but not SAA as a whole. 

This passenger said the whole experience had been “very stressful and exhausting. A lot of these people have been stranded in Europe for a long time and this was the last flight out of Europe.

“There was a lot of confusion and SAA, Dirco (the Department of International Relations and Co-operation) and SA embassies in Europe were all putting up their hands and saying ‘This is not our fault’. ” She pointed especially to a statement by Dirco spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele on News24 on Friday in which he said he was not even aware of the Frankfurt flight. This seemed strange to the passengers as Dirco has to authorise all repatriation flights. 

Meanwhile, SAA told the stranded passengers left behind in Frankfurt that it couldn’t help them with hotel and transport costs in Frankfurt as this was a repatriation flight, making the SA government responsible for those costs.

This passenger — who declined to be named for fear she might also be bumped off the KLM flight in retaliation — said many of the stranded passengers couldn’t afford the extra accommodation and transport, but the group had got together and managed to organise their costs, in part by contacting their employers. 

Flight SA 2691 was originally scheduled to leave Frankfurt at 13.55 on Friday. Some passengers who had flown in from elsewhere had been camping at the departure gate since Monday because they could not get through immigration into Germany as they did not have the right visas, said Massimo Biancheri, an oil and gas technician who has been stuck in Europe since late January when his contract in Azerbaijan ended.

He said when he arrived at check-in, he discovered the flight had been overbooked — several people who had already been issued e-tickets were told they were not on the flight

“Families and disabled that should be given priority boarding were pushed to the side and ignored. Disabled individuals that need mobility assistance were told to ‘just walk’. ”

Those who were allowed to board discovered that the faulty door had still not been fixed and that SAA had cordoned off another 40 seats for safety reasons.

“Boarding began late; everyone was on the plane by 3.30pm.”

Then they were told one of the doors would not close and after hours of attempts to fix it, they were told at around 6pm the flight had been cancelled, and that they had to disembark.

“About 50 people were forced to sleep in the airport for the night, including some elderly individuals, because SAA could not confirm transit visas.

“SAA organised buses to take us to a hotel, but many were left in the airport without clear communications. The buses were far and many elderly and mobility-impaired had to walk with their suitcases.”

Biancheri explained that some bumped passengers then received emails from SAA to say they had been moved to the 10.30am Saturday KLM flight to Amsterdam. He and other passengers said SAA had decided to bump passengers who had dual EU citizenship or Schengen visas which would allow them to stay in Germany and travel to the Netherlands.

But others did not receive the information from SAA about the KLM flight. Some were too late for the KLM flight. Meanwhile, SAA had already reassigned their seats to others, despite their having had boarding passes since Friday.

Those who were allowed to board discovered that the faulty door had still not been fixed and that SAA had cordoned off another 40 seats for safety reasons.

So by a combination of overbooking and the door problem, about 45 people didn’t make it on to the Frankfurt-Moscow-Johannesburg flight, despite having boarding passes from Friday.

Several passengers complained of generally poor communication from SAA about the changes in plans. By midday Sunday they were still not sure how long they would have to stay in Frankfurt, but then the word filtered out about the Monday KLM flight to Cape Town. 

The Saturday KLM flight which brought home the other South Africans bumped off the SA 2691 was the first flight by that airline to bring home stranded South Africans. Previously KLM had been unable to do that because of the SA government’s rule that foreign air crews could not disembark in South Africa. International air travel regulations stipulate that air crews of long-haul flights have to sleep at least one night between flights — or carry reserve crews to fly the aircraft back to their points of departure.

Of those passengers who had paid and had been ticketed, SAA had had to leave about 45 behind because of a fault with the emergency escape slide from one of the doors.

But KLM is not allowed to bring reserve crews because of its safety regulations. However, officials said Dirco had now granted KLM an exemption which allowed the crew to disembark and go to a hotel to sleep the night before flying back to Amsterdam carrying Dutch and other European nationals who had been stranded in South Africa. 

KLM has scheduled several more flights out of South Africa over the next two weeks to repatriate stranded Europeans. It now seems that KLM will be able to repatriate South Africans on all these flights. SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali confirmed to Daily Maverick that Saturday’s flight from Frankfurt had been the last SAA repatriation flight from Europe and any other stranded South Africans would be brought home by KLM.

Explaining the problems with the Frankfurt flight, he insisted that SAA had issued tickets for the Frankfurt flight based only on the list supplied by Dirco.

“SAA did not invite more passengers in excess of the seats it had available on that flight to make payment into its bank account. We nonetheless had more passengers arriving at the airport in Frankfurt who had paid, but were not ticketed.”

Of those passengers who had paid and had been ticketed, SAA had had to leave about 45 behind because of a fault with the emergency escape slide from one of the doors.

This was important for possible emergency evacuation so SAA decided not to operate the flight on Friday, hoping to fix the slide on Saturday. 

But it could not fix the door and slide on Saturday and because of prescribed ratios of passengers per door for safety reasons, it had had to leave behind 45 passengers who were originally scheduled to be on that flight. These passengers had not been part of the unticketed passengers. 

“We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused to our passengers and trust they understand that we took that decision in the interest of their safety and of our crew.

“The aircraft was at all times airworthy and landed in Johannesburg on Sunday morning with 270 passengers from both Frankfurt and Moscow.”

Explaining why some passengers had missed the KLM flight, he said:

“Communication did not reach everyone or reached others late as we communicated the KLM flight option based on the contact details we had.”

He added that SAA was consulting to determine how best to help the passengers left behind, including with accommodation. 

“We must take responsibility in the first instance for those 45 passengers who got offloaded as that is in line with the industry practice.” DM


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