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45 South Africans, including Olympic athlete, left at Frankfurt Airport after SAA says it cannot take all

Scores of South Africans were left at Frankfurt Airport on Saturday after being told SAA could not take all passengers because of safety reasons.
Scores of South Africans were left at Frankfurt Airport on Saturday after being told SAA could not take all passengers because of safety reasons.

An athlete who represented SA in the 2012 London Olympics and more than 40 other South Africans found themselves stranded in Germany after a SAA repatriation flight left for SA without them.

Though tickets had been paid for and after a delay of a day, the 45-odd South Africans were left behind after being told the flight could not accommodate all of them.

Jean Greeff, who competed in the men's 94kg weightlifting event at the 2012 Summer Olympics, said he and other South Africans in Europe had been informed about the repatriation flight by SAA from Europe to SA.

“We contacted the embassy. We paid just 900 euros or R17,000 for a one-way flight out of Frankfurt that was supposed to depart on June 12,” Greeff said.

Greeff said the flight from Frankfurt was supposed to depart at 1.55pm on Friday, but there were a number of delays which eventually resulted in the flight being cancelled.

“We were told the flight has been cancelled because of technical issues. We were told the plane was going to stay overnight to be repaired.”

The 200 passengers were booked into a hotel.

“We were told we would fly at 6 the next day, then we were told we will fly at 3 the next day.”

The bus took them from the hotel to the airport at noon on Saturday.

The plane started taking passengers.

“And as we got closer to the end, they just started shutting down the ticket station. They told us because the plane was not repaired, but it is gonna fly ... they had to reduce the numbers on the plane.

“They had to take 45 people off the flight. I am one of them.”

Greeff said he was staying an hour-and-a half from the airport while other fellow stranded passengers were closer to the airport.

“When they took my ticket stub, they said SAA will be responsible for accommodation and food until we get another flight to SA.” 

However, Greeff said SAA then changed tack and said this was not a SAA service, but a SA government repatriation service, and therefore SAA will not take responsibility for the 45 people it left behind.

SAA was not immediately available for comment.

Beverly Schäfer, of Home Away from Home, said these South Africans who found themselves stranded have been waiting for months to be repatriated and could not afford to incur any extra costs.

Schäfer said the incident happens at a time when SAA was returning leased aircraft to lessors.

Schäfer said the organisation will try to see whether stranded South Africans could be put on other flights to SA next week.

“SAA must take full responsibility for leaving these South Africans who have paid for their flights home. It must take a plane to Europe and pick up the stranded South Africans and bring them home,” she said.

SAA apologised for leaving the passengers and explained how it happened.

It said on Friday evening before departure from Frankfurt to Moscow, one of the aircraft doors indicated a fault with its emergency escape slide, which is an important functionality for emergency evacuation purposes.

“We took a decision not to operate the flight on the day (Friday) hoping the situation would be resolved (the) next day,” SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali said.

He said in this case, as the aircraft door could not be fixed in a short space of time. On Saturday, SAA implemented the prescribed passenger-to-aircraft door ratio and regrettably had to leave around 45 passengers behind.

“Those passengers were ticketed and were impacted by the aircraft door that could not operate the emergency escape slide. They were not part of the unticketed group,” Tlali said.

He said while the aircraft door could still open and close, SAA could not discount a possibility of an emergency, however remote or unlikely.

“We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused to our passengers and trust they understand that we took that decision in the interest of their safety and of our crew.

“The aircraft was at all times airworthy and landed in Johannesburg on Sunday morning with 270 passengers from both Frankfurt and Moscow.”

Tlali said there were consultations under way to determine how best to assist the passengers who were left behind.

“Our team in Germany is in touch with as many of the passengers left behind to provide required assistance, including accommodation,” Tlali said.

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