South African company Fireblade Aviation has stressed that the international arrivals and departures section of its fixed-base operation (FBO) at OR Tambo International Airport, east of Johannesburg, would be totally under the control of the relevant government agencies. This was made clear at a recent media briefing and tour of the facility.
The FBO was set up to cater for VIP and VVIP passengers flying into, out of and within South Africa on executive aircraft. It would provide quick and easy access to, and exit from, the country for global leading businesspeople, dignitaries, celebrities and charter clientele. It would also provide them with privacy. Such FBOs are found all over the world – there are more than 5 000 in the US alone – with on-site customs, immigration and police facilities, but South Africa currently has none in operation.
Fireblade is owned by investment company E Oppenheimer & Sons, the holding company of South Africa’s renowned Oppenheimer family, headed by Nicky Oppenheimer. “We offer a service,” he pointed out. “We can [also] hangar, refuel, wash, and so on, aircraft.”
There have been claims that, if authorised to handle international flights, Fireblade would have control over people entering and leaving the country. “International departures and arrivals would be totally controlled by non-Fireblade staff. They would be operated by government personnel – Customs and Immigration and the South African Police Service,” assured Fireblade director Bruce Tillim.
“The international departures and arrivals section at Fireblade were designed by government agencies – they were signed off by 18 agencies!” he highlighted. “We’ve met 110% of their requirements. Their computers do not plug into ours – they have their own server. “Government agencies will control all international access.”
The FBO is located on a corner of the Denel site at the airport. “ACSA (Airports Company South Africa) have always wanted a facility like this for business aircraft. It fits their 40-year plan,” he asserted. “They authorised Denel to sign the sublease with us. Denel is a tenant of ACSA.”
“There is zero . . . zero capability for an aircraft to leave here without official permission,” he stressed. “You need to file a flight plan, get a [take-off time] slot to depart, etcetera. Furthermore, aircraft cannot leave the Fireblade precinct without going through two gates – one controlled by Denel, the other by ACSA.”
The FBO started domestic operations in September 2014. However, to be profitable, the company requires international traffic. Currently, the Oppenheimer family is keeping the operation solvent by putting their own money into it.
“Denel [originally] was extraordinarily supportive,” noted Oppenheimer. “Then something happened. From being extraordinarily supportive landlords, they became extremely obstructive. They are now difficult and uncommunicative.” The change seems to have followed the appointment of the new Denel board in 2015. “Denel has been complaining about security [at Fireblade]. But security here is much tighter than at OR Tambo’s terminals simply because no one can gain access to our premises without our knowledge.”
Fireblade’s application for the implementation of Customs and Immigration services at the FBO was, the company affirmed, approved early last year by Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, but then suspended in February. In November, Fireblade took the Minister to court to force him to admit he had approved its application or to grant the application or to consider granting the application. That same month, Gigaba wrote to the company saying he had refused their application.
“We got 27 individual approvals from the government [for international operations]. The international section is a sterile area,” emphasised Oppenheimer. “Our frustration is that we are going nowhere. Our business plan is not working, because we don’t have Customs and Immigration [operational at the FBO]. That is why we have taken this disappointing decision to go to a judge. I’ve never done anything like this in my business career before.”