An increasing skills shortage in the South African Airways (SAA) technical division could cause problems in retaining United States approval to operate on its routes, trade union Solidarity warned on Monday.

Spokesperson Jaco Kleynhans said SAA was not meeting acceptable standards and was told to shape up by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) during a recent visit.

“If this does not happen, SAA could lose its approval for airline routes to this leading destination [US],” said Kleynhans.

He said it was not the first time that SAA had been reprimanded for the skills shortage among its workers, especially the technical division.

“The situation in SAA Technical is heading for a disaster and this while many experts are still leaving the company. It recently became known that approximately 90% of employees at SAA Technical are considering leaving,” Kleynhans explained.

Expertise was lost on a large scale to Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East.

Kleynhans blamed poor management in the technical division for the “crisis”, saying it not only endangered the safety of passengers, but also job security and the airline.

With insufficient expert technicians, it was impossible to perform various levels of repairs on planes, he said, adding that this poor maintenance could lead to accidents.

However, SAA Technical CEO Clive Else said they received final audit results from the FAA in April following an initial draft report submitted in March this year.

The reports confirmed their concern over the loss of qualified staff.

“We are pleased that the FAA renewed SAA Technical’s certificate for 2008, but the loss of technicians is a clear concern to [us],” said Else.

He said an intensive mitigation process was put in place to restore their skills base and that the recruitment process was ongoing.

“… Some ex-employees are returning from foreign employers,” said Else.

Most technicians, who Else described as “highly marketable”, were “unfortunately” lost during the restructuring period in 2007/08.

However, he said a recruitment drive was immediately embarked on to bring on board those with the necessary “skills, experience and passion”.

“We employed 260 technicians in April this year, bringing the total number of staff involved in the maintenance of aircraft to 1 300,” said Else.

On safety, Else said this was non-negotiable and they would under no circumstances employ people who were incapable of performing at the highest level expected from them.

“Neither will any pressure be exerted on staff members to take shortcuts in the production line, or to release any aircraft where repair work is incomplete as a result of any manpower shortages in a particular area,” he said.

“SAA aircraft are maintained regularly and inspected consistently with additional pre-flight checks carried out before each departure.”

Else said where it was not possible for them to carry out certain maintenance procedures, these would be contracted out to other “world-class facilities” that matched the high standards required. — Sapa