Johannesburg - At least one presidential jet must be on the tarmac of Air Force Base Waterkloof in Pretoria by April 1 because Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula is “fed up” about VIP jets being unavailable.
Last week, City Press’ sister paper, Rapport, revealed that a new long-range presidential jet – which would seat 30 passengers and contain a private bedroom suite, a bathroom and a conference room for eight people, and could cost up to R4 billion if purchased new – was being procured by the SA Air Force.
The new aircraft’s specifications were contained in a detailed request for information that Armscor, the army’s acquisition agent, issued a week ago.
This document, which City Press has seen, stands in stark contrast with Armscor and the air force’s claims this week that their request for information was not binding and was merely being used to determine what the options were for a second jet.
However, the air force is in fact working to make a purchase soon – with the request for information from interested parties due on Friday. Final presentations from preferred suppliers need to have been considered by mid-January.
This is the first time the air force has stated a need for an aircraft that can fly non-stop to New York or Moscow with 30 passengers on board.
The original statement of requirement in 2011, which was approved by Treasury and seen by Rapport, was for six new VIP aircraft.
All six were to be purchased for R2 billion, but a single aircraft can cost up to double that amount. An offer was made to an aircraft manufacturer three years ago for the six planes.
Two senior air force officers involved in and close to the acquisition process told Rapport that the larger aircraft was added as an option because a “higher authority” wanted to fly with more people on board without having to land to refuel.
Presidential spokesperson Bongani Majola said: “The presidency is not aware of the specifications at all for the jet at this stage. We do not know how many seats they have asked for, as this is in essence not a private plane or a presidency plane that they are looking for.
“We have also been informed that the procurement process, as such, has not begun and that the department of defence is at an exploratory phase. The president has no preferences at all, except that he wants the department to keep in mind the cost-containment measures of government when they test the market. President Zuma will not support extravagance in this regard.”
The original requirements in 2011 came after then deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe was stranded at Waterkloof because the plane in which he was supposed to fly to Finland had broken down. Before then, he was stuck in the Democratic Republic of Congo with a hired aircraft.
An air force commission of inquiry found that a proper plane needed to be bought for the deputy president and there was also a need for a backup plane for Inkwazi, the presidential jet.
Kevin Wakeford, CEO of Armscor, this week said: “We do not work according to a specific schedule, but our guidelines are that the request for information must be submitted by November 20. By mid-January, we should have already considered the final presentations of the preferred suppliers.
“Between then and the end of March, the contracts must be signed and at least an interim jet must be delivered.”
Air force chief Lieutenant General Zakes Msimang said plans for the new planes were “still on the books”.
Rapport has learnt that Inkwazi is being underutilised, and only clocks between 450 and 500 flying hours a year. The average number of hours for a Boeing Business Jet is 800 hours a year.
Wakeford said: “We are looking at all the options. If it seems like a second aircraft could form part of one of the supplier’s offers, and it would be more cost-effective, then we would consider it. We are open to possibilities.”
He said Armscor would be “careful” when it came to the budget, but he declined to reveal how much money the government had set aside.
There are only a few business jets available that meet the long-range criteria. Among these are the Boeing 777 and 787.
One option may be to take over one of SAA’s existing Airbus A340s and kit it out according to President Jacob Zuma’s requirements.
Armscor could have the interior as well as the aviation and communication systems upgraded by local companies, thereby managing the spending locally, an aircraft expert said.
However, Wakeford said it might not be possible to source a jet that met all the requirements within the time limit, which was why short- and long-term options should be considered.
Mapisa-Nqakula’s spokesperson, Joy Peter, said the minister “stood by the remarks made by the apex leadership of the air force and Armscor earlier in the week”.
“Minister Mapisa-Nqakula has on many occasions made public her frustrations about capability gaps in terms of the availability of VIP aircraft,” said Peter.
“Furthermore, recently she convened a meeting of top department of defence officials to deal with the ongoing lack of availability and advised that this had to be resolved as a matter of urgency. The minister is of the view that VIP aircraft capability challenges cannot be ignored any longer. We are losing exorbitant amounts to private air charter companies.”
– Additional reporting by Hlengiwe Nhlabathi