South African Airways Flies With Water In The Fuel Tanks, Engines Surge

Three months ago a South African Airways Airbus A330 from Accra, Ghana to Johannesburg reported both engines surging while over Botswana. The aircraft, with 209 people on board, continued the final 50 minutes to Johannesburg even as surges continued on final approach.

The flight had been rescheduled from the previous day after fuel had been found contaminated with “high quantities of water” and engines wouldn’t start once the aircraft pushed back. Water was drained from the fuel tank and they tried the flight again. The flight’s captain was involved in an incident two months prior (South African Airways calls criticisms of the pilot “racist prejudice”).

The plane spent a month on the ground. There fuel system was highly contaminated and all of the aircraft’s fuel pumps required replacement.

Reportedly the airline had just changed fuel suppliers in Accra. And after water had been drained from the fuel system, the aircraft was signed off for a ferry flight back to South Africa – with no passengers – but a full complement of passengers was loaded anyway.

Fighting back and forth in the media between the airlines and critics, often discussing past accidents in the airline’s long history, makes as much sense as when Ariana Afghan Airways pointed to its founding in cooperation with Pan Am as support for its safety. The airline has a recent history of cronyism and incompetence, weighed against general confidence in Star Alliance’s auditing procedures (out of fear that safety problems with one of its members could damage the reputation of the alliance and its other members). The newly-capitalized airline, though, needs to build confidence in its procedures and has had multiple highly publicized issues already this year.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Checking on Star Alliance website, it seems that SAA is no longer a member. Its logo disappeared.

  2. “There fuel system…” should be “their fuel system,” Gary.


    There are basic checks to ensure water is not in fuel that every private pilot knows how to perform.

  3. @Tim Dunn You are making assumptions about the abilities of SAA pilots. I would not fly this airline any longer.

  4. @Tim and Nick

    As an airline pilots we don’t check fuel for water, ( nor other things private pilots do on piston aircraft). This is the responsibility of the fueling vendor.

  5. @Dan77W

    Thanks for your comment. Are there accessible fuel separators on commercial aircraft that one can know just by taking a look if there is water in the fuel? Kinda like in boats.

  6. No there is not. There’s no indication in transport category aircraft to the flight crew if there is water in the fuel.

    Checking for water is a maintenance function that is done periodically during checks but not before each flight.

  7. I didn’t say that commercial pilots had to check the fuel. I said there are simple procedures to check for water in fuel. Private pilots do perform those checks but fuel vendors worldwide do those checks for commercial flights and for general aviation.

  8. Everything with South Africa has fallen down over the last 25 years. The flag airline is no different. Instead of maintaining excellence, the airline is required to hire a specific race no matter if the individual is qualified.

    One of the safest and most prosperous countries in the world has turned into a murder capital and where White farmers face genocide. When one group who built absolutely nothing takes over and operates something they didn’t build, disaster will ensue.

  9. South African Airways’ new slogan: “Take a chance with us”
    Oh, but wanting to live is “racist prejudice”, right?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.