CemAir airborne again from Plett
After a massive public outcry, the Bitou Municipality has backtracked on its decision to kick CemAir out of the Plettenberg Bay Airport.
The decision follows a meeting held between Bitou’s executive management and CemAir on 22 March.
Municipal spokesperson Manfred van Rooyen said a decision had been made to withdraw the “suspension of activities of CemAir” with immediate effect subject to the submission of SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) approval certificates regarding the airworthiness of the aircraft being utilised by CemAir.
Operator ‘may use the airport’
“CemAir may use the airport similar to that of a normal client or user, paying the applicable approved landing and parking fees and the matter of passenger fees payable will be investigated, awaiting a report from CemAir indicating the contribution of the carrier in this regard,” Van Rooyen said.
He added that the municipality took note that the operator’s account was being disputed by CemAir. “A decision was also made that the acting municipal manager tables a comprehensive report to council, detailing the chronology of events since CemAir started with its operations in March 2014. The report will include the aspect of the account being disputed as a result of an alleged absence of an agreement.”
Agreement in dispute
This is the latest development following the municipality’s announcement just over a week ago that it had given CemAir notice to cease operations at the local airport after the operator allegedly failed to honour an agreement with the municipality.
CemAir has, however, in the meantime disputed the claims and the issue has sparked major public outcry.
On 27 March 2014, the operator stated, CemAir signed a written agreement with the Bitou Municipality for the provision of a scheduled air service to Plett by making use of the airport.
‘Little maintenance at airport’
The operator further stated in February last year, CemAir proposed new terms for the use of the airport which included a five-year minimum lease and a fixed fee arrangement which was to be governed by a new formal agreement.
‘No new agreement’
“Although the municipality undertook to negotiate the new agreement, this never took place and the municipality became unresponsive to enquiries. The municipality did, however, attempt to unilaterally accept the payment offer from CemAir without binding themselves to any duration or performance obligations as outlined in the offer. It is this amount they now seek to recover as the so-called ‘provisions of an agreement that CemAir has not honoured’,” it said.
Following the reversal of the municipality’s initial decision, CemAir says the municipality’s latest media statement, about the withdrawal, provided no reason for the decision.
‘Legal basis unclear’
“Similarly, the ‘suspension letter’ received by CemAir on 14 March 2018 provided no reason for the suspension itself,” the operator said in a statement.
“It is unclear on what legal basis Bitou relied upon when, without notice, it suspended the operations … ostensibly on the basis of a fee dispute.”
CemAir further stated the municipality’s “manufactured urgency to act so drastically” did not include any attempt to resolve the matter with CemAir or any consultation with affected or interested public parties such as Plett Tourism, the local ratepayers’ associations and other community groups. “This flies in the face of the philosophies of democracy.”
Operator ‘can’t carry all costs’
CemAir said they noted the municipality’s mandate to collect revenue and highlight the equally weighted mandate to discharge its obligation of service delivery. “CemAir is absolutely willing to pay reasonable fees for the use of the airfield but this cannot be done in addition to paying operational costs that should be paid by the airport licensee to achieve regulatory compliance and basic functionality. The operation of an airport requires ongoing management, administration and investment. The user fees collected need to be used to provide maintenance and upkeep of the facility.”
Open skies policy applies
The operator further stated the Bitou council resolved on 28 February 2018 to invite other commercial airlines to conduct operations to and from the airport.
“South Africa has an open skies policy and any airline which is licensed and equipped is free to conduct flights to Plettenberg Bay. Competition laws require that all airlines be offered the same terms. That said, the reality is that Plettenberg Bay is a thin and marginal route and that it is unlikely to support more than one carrier. Bitou would be well guided to nurture what has been built over the last four years with CemAir and do everything in its power to ensure the town does not lose its airline service as was the case for the decade before CemAir’s service commenced.”
‘Profound economic spin-offs’
“The airline service into Plettenberg Bay has had a profound impact on the economy of the town. It is estimated that more than 100 households have relocated to Plett as a result of the improved connectivity. Tourism has benefited dramatically with increased occupancy levels and the construction of additional accommodation.
“Building and construction companies in general have seen a marked increase in projects and estate agents have recorded record years of sales. As a result, an estimated 700 jobs have been created. The service is a vital utility for the town and key for its continued growth.”