There has been such a tsunami of bad cadre deployment and wastage that South African Airways has accumulated enormous debt
The first time I flew South African Airways, I was in my mother’s arms, flying down for the funeral of her mother in Cape Town. And, in the many times I have been on board their planes since, I have never really had a bad experience.
To be honest, though, I wonder whether I will ever be an SAA passenger again. Like many other South Africans, it will take a lot to convince me that the airline can be resurrected from the ashes of state capture devastation and incompetence by the newly minted government-private partnership.
Many have been saying for years that the state airline should be privatised and now it looks – on the surface at least – as though it has been. The Takatso Consortium has been given 51% of SAA, while the government holds the remaining 49%.
South African Airways branding is seen outside the SAA Technical premises, 11 June 2021, in Kempton Park. Picture: Michel Bega
Leaving aside the very real concern about whether the consortium is a mere front for fatcat ANC cadres (who obviously didn’t join the struggle to be poor), I’m more interested in how you salvage the image of an organisation which has become a byword for all that has gone wrong with state-owned enterprises since 1994.
Takatso’s Gidon Novick (of Comair fame) is an accomplished businessman and airline expert, so – in that sense – the new baby looks as though it is in good hands. But, he and his team are going to have their work cut out for them in rebuilding trust in the public.
There has been such a tsunami of bad cadre deployment and wastage that SAA has accumulated enormous debt (which looks as though it will be written off in one of the sweetheart deals of the decade). But, more than that, there has been an obvious polarization of staff (especially in the flying line) along racial lines.
A culture of negativity has been identified as a factor in a number of serious plane crashes in the past 30 years… yet no airline, I would venture, has a more toxic situation than SAA currently.
Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and his people are feuding with white pilots at SAA, claiming they are trying to hold the airline and government to ransom – and plans for the “new” SAA have made racial transformation the top priority. Those sort of tensions can manifest themselves in the cockpit, with disastrous results.
New York, USA – March 1, 2020: South African Airways Airbus A350-900 airplane at New York John F. Kennedy airport (JFK) in the USA. Airbus is an aircraft manufacturer based in Toulouse, France.
Safety has already hit the headlines. Earlier this year, SAA applied for, and was granted, certain exemptions by the SA Civil Aviation Authority to allow it to send an Airbus A340-600 from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Brussels to collect a cargo of vaccines.
That plane almost stalled ontakeoff, allegedly because the crew had neglected to carry out a basic pre-flight check, something which should have been prominent in their basic and refresher training.
The aircraft was saved by its embedded electronic systems. Further, on the way back, the crew allegedly violated noise abatement levels in Brussels.
Apart from the safety aspects, there are questions about whether SAA can, or should, even continue to operate international services. This is because SAA is an “end of hemisphere” airline which is a long way from anywhere. Joburg is no longer regarded as the “gateway to Africa” for the rest of the world.
Ethiopian Airlines at its hub in Addis Ababa and Kenya Airways, from its base in Nairobi, have already assumed that mantle. And that’s without talking about Rwanda, which has entered a major partnership with Qatar Airways to build a major new airport and continental hub outside the capital, Kigali. In aviation business terms, it’s cold down here on the southern tip of Africa.
Madrid, Spain – 08/11/2017: Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Madrid Barajas airport
The money saved from closing international routes – and selling off valuable landing slots at international airports like Heathrow in London – could definitely help in reviving the airline.
Yet, perhaps the best thing to do from a brand management perspective is to change the name of SAA. That way you may sever a connection going back to the 1930s, but you also lessen the reminders of the recent collapse. I will be watching with interest… but reserving my judgment (and my money).
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