* State airline SAA in crisis
* Regulator found faults at maintenance unit
* SAA, Mango, Comair grounded 46 planes for checks
* Regulator accepts SAA Technical's recovery plan (Adds SAA comment, detail, context)
By Alexander Winning
JOHANNESBURG, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Forty of the 46 airplanes grounded this week owing to faults found at the maintenance unit of state-owned South African Airways (SAA) have been returned to service, the head of South Africa's aviation regulator said on Thursday.
The faults found at SAA Technical have focused attention on the crisis at SAA, which hasn't made an annual profit since 2011 or published financial results since 2017 because of question marks over its long-term viability as a business.
SAA has floundered with an unprofitable route network and a fleet of ageing and inefficient airplanes.
South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) Chief Executive Poppy Khoza told a news conference the regulator had made five findings during an audit at SAA Technical, after which it issued a prohibition order stopping some aircraft from flying.
As of Wednesday evening more than 80% of SAA's affected aircraft were back in service, however, SAA spokesman Tlali Tlali told Reuters.
The audit made two serious findings: that inadequately qualified personnel had signed off on maintenance work and that maintenance checks on flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders had not been done correctly, Khoza said.
Other findings included SAA Technical's failure to implement previous findings and lapses in its quality management system.
The SACAA has since accepted a "corrective action plan" from SAA Technical, which maintains aircraft for SAA, its subsidiary Mango Airlines and British Airways franchise partner Comair , which also operates under the kulula.com brand.
Twenty-five SAA planes had been grounded this week, 14 Comair planes and seven Mango Airlines planes, Khoza said.
That led to domestic flight cancellations and delays on Tuesday. Disruptions had eased by Wednesday.
SACAA chairman Ernest Khosa said South Africans were safe in the skies after the intervention by the regulator.
A lack of clarity earlier in the week over the faults at SAA Technical had led to speculation that authorities were covering up major infringements.
Tlali said it was too early to quantify the financial impact from the grounding of its planes, dismissing an allegation that the faults were linked to SAA's perilous financial position.
"None of the audit findings made at SAA Technical can reasonably be associated with the state of finances we are experiencing at the moment," Tlali said. "No case has been made to support this claim because none exists." (Reporting by Alexander Winning Editing by Tim Cocks and Alexandra Hudson)