All eight South African Airways flights between Harare and Johannesburg were canceled on Saturday when the Zimbabwe government demanded a foreign operators permit, a day after an Air Zimbabwe plane was grounded in the South African city for similar reasons.
The decisions to halt the flights came as Zimbabwe seeks diplomatic immunity in South Africa for President Robert Mugabe’s wife, Grace, after she was charged with assault in Johannesburg. The Wednesday request is being considered, officials said. On Friday, the state-owned Airports Co. of South Africa blocked an evening Air Zimbabwe flight to Harare after authorities asked for the airline’s foreign operators permit.
“They also imposed similar decisions on us yesterday and an Air Zimbabwe plane was grounded,” Joram Gumbo, Zimbabwe’s transport minister, said by phone on Saturday. “We’ve also taken a similar decision, in line with international practices, but we hope that the issue will be resolved soon.”
SAA has activated recovery plans with every effort being made to assist hundreds of stranded passengers, spokesman Tlali Tlali said by text message. In an interview on SABC television he said the costs of the canceled flights couldn’t yet be calculated. The dispute led to cancellation of flights by Johannesburg-based Comair Ltd.
South Africa Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi plans to meet with aviation agencies soon to discuss the grounding of the Zimbabwe flight, which failed to comply with rules for producing the foreign operating permit, his office said.
The grounding of planes is a “diplomatic impasse” over the assault charges against Grace Mugabe, the Democratic Alliance, a South African opposition party, said in an emailed statement. “It seems that tensions between Zimbabwe and South Africa are mounting. The Minister of Finance Malusi Gigaba must urgently and publicly address these concerning incidents and confirm that the SAA passengers and crew in Zimbabwe are safe.”
Comair, which operates between South Africa and Zimbabwe under a franchise agreement with British Airways, also stopped its Saturday flights.
“We have learnt that there is a possibility of South African operated airlines being grounded in Zimbabwe and as a precautionary measure have decided to temporarily suspend our services to the country while the matter is being resolved by the authorities,” according to an emailed company statement.
SAA asked the South African government for 10 billion rand ($760 million), as part of a recapitalization plan aimed at returning it to profit, the finance chief said last month. The airline has failed to make a profit since 2011 and this month said it’s in a liquidity crisis because it’s trying to meet its debt obligations.