Hilka Birns/CAPE TOWN

South Africa's first independent and majority black-owned international airline, African Star, may have jumped the gun by announcing that the government has granted it an international air service licence.

According to sources at the country's transport department, Pretoria's Air Services Licensing Council has given only conditional approval for the licence, pending submission of additional information and documents. "The licence has not been issued. Conditional approval does not necessarily mean that we will issue a licence. We are awaiting certain documents," a source says. According to South African aviation legislation, such information could relate to insurance, the business plan, proof of financial backing, corporate structure, fleet details, a safety plan and certified airworthiness of aircraft not registered in South Africa.

African Star chief executive Capt Joe Kirama disputes the claim, saying he received written approval from the council immediately after final submissions were made on 19 April. He says that the airline is to apply for an operator's certificate.

Observers are surprised by the speed with which approval has been granted and the lack of objection from South African Airways (SAA) - which, in the past, has routinely opposed new licence applications. The only opposition is from domestic carrier Sun Air. Eyebrows have been raised at the airline's unconditional purchase ahead of approval of two Boeing 747-300s, an Airbus A310-200, and a full flight simulator from Singapore Airlines. The aircraft are to be delivered in late April.

Kirama says that African Star intends to start flying daily from Johannesburg to London and Munich in the third quarter of the year. The airline plans four direct flights a week from Johannesburg to Munich (from where rival SAA has withdrawn) and three services to London Stansted. It aims eventually to add Cape Town and more European destinations. The A310-200 will be used as a back-up and will be leased to charter operators on domestic and regional routes. Lufthansa Technik and Denel Aviation will maintain the aircraft.

Kirama says that African Star is owned by a consortium, 80% of which are South African and regional black entrepreneurs. A minority share is held by Starwelt Airways Group.

Its Burundi-registered subsidiary, Starwelt Airways, charters cargo flights between South Africa, Burundi, Malawi, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.

Critics have questioned African Star's ability to survive in a market in which long-established airlines are undercutting each other and where some recent newcomers, including Flitestar and Avia Airlines, have flopped.

Source: Flight International