Friday, February 24, 2012

Velvet Sky airline hits more turbulence

Further delays were announced in Durban by low-cost airline Velvet Sky Aviation on Friday morning.

A queue of irate passengers, standing alongside the airline’s boarding gates shortly before 9am, were told that their scheduled 6am flight would only depart at 10h30.

One passenger who supplied her first name, Elsie, said she and her husband were now considering driving up to Johannesburg where they were planning on attending their grandson’s birthday party.

“We were told at first that our 6am flight would depart at 9am and now, we’ve been told that due to “operational reasons” we have to leave the boarding area and wait.”

She said communication to passengers from Velvet Sky management had also been slow and lacked in reassurance that the airline would be making departures at all on Friday.

She said, however, that meal vouchers had been given to passengers when they were told their flights had been delayed.

It seems, however, that Velvet Sky Aviation may be grounded indefinitely. All flights were cancelled on Thursday, with the airline facing provisional liquidation proceedings by BP Southern Africa, brought before the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Friday.

The company has failed to pay an undisclosed amount it owes the fuel supplier.

This comes amid a financial dispute between Velvet Sky and SAA Technical that led to all flights being cancelled on Thursday and 600 passengers being stranded in Durban, Cape Town and Joburg.

News of the dispute broke on Wednesday, when long delays in Velvet Sky flights, mainly from Cape Town, were experienced. On Thursday, there were dozens of irate passengers at Durban’s King Shaka International Airport, and many more in Cape Town and Joburg, waiting for answers from staff but having to make alternative flight arrangements.

BP spokeswoman Glenda Zvenyika confirmed that the fuel company had begun liquidation proceedings against Velvet Sky for money owed for fuel.

She said BP had to suspend supplies to Velvet Sky in January because of non-payment.

“BP Southern Africa and Velvet Sky had agreed payment terms over recent months, but Velvet Sky has not been able to meet these and unfortunately we have now been forced to take this action,” she said.

Velvet Sky operations chief Gary Webb said he did not have “first-hand information” on the liquidation application. “But that issue is being dealt with in Durban by our CEO, Dhevan Pillay,” he said.

Pillay, the man behind Velvet Sky’s launch last March, did not respond to calls from The Mercury.

The company put out a statement apologising to passengers affected by Wednesday’s delays, which it said had been caused by circumstances beyond its control.

“Velvet Sky management, however, continues to work very hard in ensuring that there is minimal disruption in our operation,” it said.

Webb said: “No flights were cancelled on Wednesday despite reports to the contrary.

“However, we had to cancel all our flights (on Thursday).

“The delays were mainly as a result of commercial issues that have arisen between Velvet Sky Aviation and a service provider (SAA Technical). We are in dispute with them, but we are… changing service providers… We started that process on Thursday, but it was not concluded in time to operate.

“About 15 flights and 600 passengers were affected countrywide.

“I am confident a deal with the new service provider will be signed by (today) and we will be back in the air.”

Passengers whose flights had been cancelled would be reimbursed.

The Airports Company of SA (Acsa) was monitoring the situation, a spokesman, Solomon Makgale, said.

He said Acsa was also owed money by the airline, but had entered into a payment arrangement, which had been honoured.

The major privately run airlines, including Comair and 1time, have had a torrid year, reporting losses.

Industry players questioned the launch of Velvet Sky last year, as well as the taxi industry’s plan to establish an airline, Santaco Express, in an economic environment that continues to be lacklustre.

The industry is facing further tough times, with a huge spike in Acsa fees and volatile oil prices.

Santaco spokesman Thabisho Molelekwa said the taxi council remained determined to launch a low-cost airline.

Molelekwa said Santaco was in talks to buy an established airline. It was not Velvet Sky.

At King Shaka International on Thursday, Coral Herald said she had missed a relative’s 60th birthday party when her return flight to Cape Town with Velvet Sky was cancelled. The airline had agreed to compensate her for a single flight only in seven days, she said.

Estate agent Louis van Wyk said he had missed two meetings when his flight to Cape Town was cancelled.

Other passengers whose Velvet Sky flights were cancelled scrambled to make bookings with other low-cost airlines.

These became fully booked, leading to some passengers waiting longer to fly.

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