DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (eTN) – Tanzania’s financially troubled national flag carrier Air Tanzania Company Limited (ATCL) is facing a major lawsuit by a group of South African tourists following a flight cancellation last month.

Reports from South Africa indicate the tourists whose hopes of a dream for a holiday in Zanzibar in December last year were shattered when their flight was canceled.

They are now finalizing preparations to sue ATCL and a Pretoria travel agency for damages to the tune of more than one million South African rand (US$99,852).

The group of 29, comprising members of the Rand Park Ridge Diving School and some of their family members, were due to fly to Zanzibar on an Air Tanzania flight on December 13, 2008 but just a few days before they departed, all the airline’s flights were grounded after its flight operation certificate was revoked by local aviation authorities.

The media reports quoted the owner of the diving school, Andrew Shaw, as saying they were devastated by the news as everyone was looking forward to the trip.

Most of the group had been saving for months to pay for it, and one of them even took an extra job on Saturdays to pay for the airfare.

Shaw said they had been arranging their trip since March last year, and had incurred many expenses in the process. They were due to stay in Zanzibar until December 20, few days before Christmas.

Apart from airfares of 168,200 South African rand (US$16,775) which they had paid to South African travel agent Jacques Bezuidenhout, they also had to pay Rand 108,518 South African rand (US$10,822) for their accommodation at Manarani Beach Cottages in Zanzibar, plus 72,500 South African rand (US$7,231) to the East Africa diving firm for the five dives they planned while in Zanzibar.

“On the Monday before we were due to leave, I received a call from our travel agent to tell us the ATCL planes were grounded,” Shaw said.

He said Bezuidenhout offered to find them alternative flights on another airline, but this would have cost more, forcing the group to incur additional costs.

Shaw eventually got the group to agree to take the alternative flight, but by the time he gave Bezuidenhout the go-ahead, he was told that the flight was fully booked.

“I had to once again phoned the group to give them the bad news. Five of our guys could get alternative flights, but for the rest of us, that was that. Instead of diving in Zanzibar, we had to settle with diving in Durban,” he said.

Shaw said he had been traveling to Zanzibar in the past with his divers, and had never experienced any such problems.

Another member of the group, Margo Bowen, said this would have been her and her husband Trevor’s first trip outside South Africa. “I had been packing for days and we could not wait for our dream holiday to arrive. We got ourselves geared up and were shattered when we heard that the planes were grounded,” Ms. Bowen said.

The divers demanded their money back and a letter of demand in this regard was sent to ATCL in Dar es Salaam and Bezuidenhout’s Travel Crossings company by advocate Alicia Kirchner of Lombards Attorneys on January 16 this year.

They are demanding compensation for the loss of money paid for the air tickets, the accommodation and the dives organized in Zanzibar amounting to Rand 349,218 (US$34,833) in total.

However, the lawyers are also demanding additional expenses, such as the money spent on obtaining visas, along with general damages incurred by the group.

According to the reports, Ms. Kirchner said ATCL had confirmed of the letter, and that it would reimburse the group for their air tickets. This was confirmed by Air Tanzania’s general manager in South Africa, Mr. Bonnie Mudahama, in an interview with Pretoria News.

Bezuidenhout, meanwhile, sympathized with the group, but said he did offer them alternative flights on another airline, but they were too late in getting back to him.

He said while they might get their airfares back, they would have forfeit their accommodation payments.

According to Bezuidenhout, what happened was not his fault, and if the group wanted to claim damages from him for the expenses they incurred, he would fight it in court.

The cash-strapped and loss-making Tanzania’s flag carrier resumed its domestic flights Friday last week after the Tanzania Civil Authority Aviation (TCAA) revoked its operations certificate. The airline has announced to resume its South African bound flights in June this year.

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete helped the airline to get-off the ground through his government’s support of US$2 million.