South African Airways has opened a criminal fraud case against a senior long-haul pilot, alleging that he was flying for the flag-carrier despite not having an air transport pilot’s licence.
The situation was uncovered after an incident involving an Airbus A340-600 which flew into turbulence over the Swiss Alps on 6 November last year, while heading north on service SA260 to Frankfurt.
SAA says the upset to the jet (ZS-SNF) resulted in an overspeed and the crew executed a recovery procedure to stabilise the aircraft, which subsequently landed safely.
Three investigations – by German and South African authorities, as well as the airline – are under way but SAA alleges that the senior first officer of flight SA260 made “false representations” to the carrier, claiming he held an air transport pilot’s licence when he actually only held a commercial pilot’s licence.
SAA says it requires all pilots to have an air transport licence within five years of employment, adding that this is linked to the status and conditions of being a senior first officer.
The airline alleges that the individual under investigation – who has since resigned – “failed to meet” the requirements but was nevertheless receiving all the financial benefits of the status.
“Any pilot failing to obtain this licence will have their employment terminated with the airline,” it points out.
The carrier is pursuing a civil claim to recover financial benefits which, it alleges, were unjustly obtained – putting the figure at “millions” of rand, taking into account salary, overtime and allowances.
“We are disappointed that it took this long to identify this vulnerability in our system,” says SAA. “We have taken steps and put interventions in place to make our verification processes more robust.”
SAA claims the alleged fraud “at no point” posed a safety risk, stating that the pilot did have a valid commercial licence which permits operation of an airliner. He had been acting as monitoring pilot for SA260.
“The pilot had successfully completed all required safety training,” the airline adds.
Crews involved such an incident as that which occurred to the A340-600 are required to be temporarily grounded pending a review and re-evaluation.
SAA says it has submitted all pilot licensing files to the South African civil aviation authority for verification and audit, and amended procedures relating to the processing of licensing examination results and certificates.