A South African airline claims local authorities are unfairly holding back its bid to kickstart several flights in Botswana, including those between Gaborone and Cape Town, in order to protect Air Botswana.
CemAir, a mid-tier airline based out of Johannesburg, operated Air Botswana’s Gaborone-Cape Town route on a wet lease between February 2017 and January 2018, when the South African airline was grounded after failing a technical inspection by that country’s civil aviation authorities. A wet lease refers to an arrangement where one airline uses another’s aircraft and cabin crew.
CemAir apparently rectified its technical issues with aviation authorities in South Africa and applied to re-enter the Botswana market on its own strength, with plans for flights from Kasane, Maun and Gaborone to various destinations in South Africa. The South African airline had planned to launch its re-entry into Botswana on August 2, with a Gaborone-Cape Town flight, but had not received any feedback to an August 2017 application from local aviation authorities. Had the August 2 flights begun, CemAir would have transformed from a South African to an international airline and the failure prompted a frustrated response from the company’s CEO, Miles van der Molen.
“At this stage we have no choice but to cancel our flight (because of) the evasive and obstructive behaviour from the Botswana Ministry of Transport (which) contravenes the country’s stated policy and mimics the exact protectionist behaviour that Bilateral Air Services Agreements aim to unravel,” Molen said. “Botswana’s failure to respond can only be seen as anti-competitive behaviour and in itself is in direct violation of the Bilateral Air Services Agreement between the two countries.” Molen said the only formal response received to date from Botswana authorities had been to the effect that a request for approval
“The response further warned that the implementation of any scheduled service into Botswana without this approval would be a violation of Botswana’s regulations as well as the Bilateral Air Services Agreement with South Africa,” Molen said. This week, Transport and Communications minister, Kitso Mokaila told BusinessWeek he was unaware of the matter and referred enquiries to the CAAB, which in turn said the issue had not yet reached their attention and was possibly still at Ministry level. By Press time, the Ministry officials had not responded to written enquiries.
Local aviation experts however told BusinessWeek that government’s approach in the matter was possibly an attempt to shore up value for Air Botswana, which is currently being spruced up for privatisation. “Those routes that CemAir is eying add value to Air Botswana’s value proposition in a privatisation and handing them over to a South African player to dominate is literally stripping value from Air Botswana,” said one expert who requested anonymity for professional reasons.
“Air Botswana’s value is in both its physical assets and the routes it has access to. We know government is trying to up its value ahead of restarting the privatisation bid.”
Botswana and South Africa have regularly had prickly aviation relations, with the former eager to avoid the takeover of its skies by South African players. In 2010, the two countries fought over the Johannesburg-Maun route, with the South Africans again accusing Botswana of trying to protect Air Botswana by “monopolising” the route.