Emirates. Picture: REUTERS/CAREN FIROUZ
An Emirates A380 airliner, tailed by the Al Fursan Aerobatics team, flies over the Dubai Airshow. Picture: REUTERS/CAREN FIROUZ

THE dispute between Emirates and the Department of Transport over the airline’s introduction of a fourth daily flight from Johannesburg to Dubai on Monday is now being pursued through diplomatic channels, the department says.

Last week, Emirates took the department to the High Court in Pretoria in a bid to force it to allow the introduction of the flight in line with a 2007 bilateral agreement between the governments of SA and the United Arab Emirates.

However, while the department adhered to the court order that the flight must go ahead, there has been much diplomatic and internal fallout. Last week, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) wrote to Transport Minister Dipuo Peters asking for an explanation.

"Discussions are taking place between SA and the UAE. We are confident that we will soon find each other on the matter in dispute," department spokesman Tiyani Rikhotso said on Tuesday.

The department has made it clear that it still wants the bilateral agreement with the UAE to be reviewed. Officials said the fourth flight had been agreed to in the context of the 2010 Soccer World Cup and the possibility that flight volumes might have needed to increase.

"The department is not disputing the initial agreement with Emirates. It has noted that it cannot abruptly halt the operations of Emirates, so has allowed for the exercise of the fourth frequency with the view to reviewing the agreement," Mr Rikhotso said.

There has also been internal fallout over the matter, with acting chief director of aviation Vuwani Ndwamoto being suspended last week over his role in the saga.

In August, Mr Ndwamoto wrote a letter to Emirates in which he gave permission for the fourth flight, on the basis of the bilateral agreement. His superior, deputy director-general Zakhele Thwala then wrote a letter to Emirates in October withdrawing permission for the flight.

In Friday’s court hearing, the court found the first letter to be valid but said the second did not apply.

The department would not comment on the case of Mr Ndwamoto, which it said was an internal matter it was not at liberty to discuss. However, at issue will be whether Mr Ndwamoto had the authority to send such a letter in the first place.

The dispute takes place in a context in which South African Airways is fighting for survival and is unable to compete with the prices and offerings of an airline such as Emirates.

While the department said it was not unduly concerned by Emirates’ encroachment on the market, "it remained its duty to ensure the protection of the aviation industry".

"The protectionist approach is being practised everywhere in the world and it should not be viewed as protecting one airline, but is for the benefit of the general populace of SA," Mr Rikhotso said in response to questions.