Airtime fails to take off

Sally Evans and Kea Modimoeng

Sally Evans and Kea Modimoeng

The wings of an anticipated new domestic low-cost airline may be clipped until it gets in line with aviation regulations and secures planes to fly its customers.

Ticket sales for Airtime Airlines were due to open on January 4 with the first flight to take off on January 18, but now it turns out the airline does not have the necessary legal documents to operate.

Phindiwe Gwebu, a spokesman for the South African Civil Aviation Authority, said yesterday: "We have not received a formal application from the airline. We have therefore not issued them with their air operator certificate."

The beleaguered airline's strategy is based on a "pay-as-you-fly" concept where cellphone airtime is used as the currency to purchase tickets - or 'iFly Airtime'.

The idea is that a passenger will pay a "top-up" rate per minute of the flight's duration. For example: a flight from Durban to Johannesburg will take 75 minutes, and with a top-up rate of R5 a minute, a one-way ticket will cost R375, according to the airline's website.

"You can top-up with iFly airtime, anytime, then make a booking within 90 days and fly within 365 days of your iFly top-up.

"If you don't book a flight with your iFly airtime you will get a cellphone airtime top-up voucher for the full value of your purchase, for the mobile network of your choice," says the website.

Airtime Airlines is owned by Durban-based Blackbird Aviation, which does not have planes of its own, but would have leased three Boeing 737s from Lanseria-based aviation group Air Aquarius.

According to reports, the deal with Air Aquarius, which would have enabled Airtime to fly commercially under the former's licence and air operator certificate, has been scuppered.

Blackbird Aviation chief executive Vino Egambarram could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Jackie Walters, a transport economist at the University of Johannesburg, said now was not a good time to start such a business because the demand for flying has dropped with the current global economic crisis.

Walters said the pay-as-you-fly strategy was nothing new because airfare has always been calculated based on distance.