Opinion

Q&A with SA Civil Aviation Authority executive Phindiwe Gwebu

An SAA pilot has been flying without the right licence for 20 years. Chris Barron asked Phindiwe Gwebu, corporate services executive at the SA Civil Aviation Authority...

10 March 2019 - 00:00 By Chris Barron

Can passengers be sure their pilots are properly qualified?
It's the right of each passenger to be able to get that type of assurance. Every airline should be able to give a passenger on request proof that the pilots that are flying the aircraft are safe.
Surely it shouldn't be up to passengers to ascertain this?
No, that's absolutely correct. It is a responsibility of the operator to ensure that its staff are properly qualified. As part of their manual of procedures that they submit to the CAA they have to prove that [their] staff are properly qualified.
Has SAA been doing this?
Yes. Remember, when we do an audit we take a sample out of their file. And in this case it was never picked up by the CAA. So the file of this person would probably not have been in that sample.
So who should have picked this up? SAA?
Yes, absolutely. Pilots write their exams, do the training, provide the proof to us and we issue them the correct licence, which they present to the operator who is their employer. The only time the CAA validates the licence is if a South African pilot goes and works overseas.
Doesn't the buck stop with you as the aviation safety regulator?
We're still finalising our investigation to find out whether the systems in the operator are adequate to allow them to know what the status of each of their employees is. Because in our records he's qualified as a commercial pilot, not as an airline transport pilot.
Isn't the lesson here that you should be auditing every pilot, not just a sample?
We're not required to do that. We operate on a good-faith basis.
So you rely on the airlines to do their job properly?
Yes, absolutely.
Do you feel let down by SAA?
Absolutely. Because now the authenticity and even reputation of the South African pilot's licence is going to come into question worldwide. Now you have to make amends and prove to outsiders that this could be an isolated incident.
Do you believe it was?
It's difficult to say because we have not finished our verification.
SAA refers to its "robust safety procedures". If they really were robust, could this have happened?
Whether the system had loopholes will have to be looked into. But we are not happy as the CAA with what has occurred.
Because it does your reputation a lot of harm, doesn't it?
It does bring it into question.
Why has the incident over the Swiss Alps that led to the discovery of the pilot's true credentials, which took place in November last year, only come to light now?
SAA reported it to us on December 7.
Why did you keep it under wraps until the media exposed it?
There were processes we had to go through, including verifying all SAA pilots' qualifications, which are ongoing.
Would the public have known if it weren't for the media?
Yes. Like we informed the public when a Congolese national faked a South African pilot's licence...

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