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Coming? Going? ……The State of South African Airlines

By Rob Russell


The world of social media is abuzz with a new airline that is planning to commence operations later this year. I would like to think, exciting times, after all the carnage (and that is about the only word one can think of) that has been going on in the airline industry, over the last year. Thanks to Covid.

It's always good to read about new airlines that are starting up – the buzz and the hype and the hope of employment that it gives to so many people. Especially after the terrible year aviation went through last year, where it almost came to a complete stop. So many people robbed of a career and income, many of them in the prime of their lives. Shocking and depressing, but that’s a story for another day.

One hopes that the management of the new airline has done their research and are ready for it. Exciting yes and, well, is it and can we afford it? One half of me wishes them luck and hopes they do well, But there is another side of me, cynical, yes and with 40 years in aviation, I can't see it succeeding. I hope I am wrong, but I doubt it. A look at the LinkedIn profile of the owner, reveals he has not much airline experience at all. In these tough times, what does he know that we don’t know? But good luck to him and long may it work. But let’s see in a year or two.

Over the years we, in South Africa, have seen many airlines come and go. Too many to even name and remember, some barely lasting a few months. So many people excited about new careers and opportunities, only to have these ambitions and dreams shattered, in some cases barely after they joined. One thinks of some of the airlines, Alliance Air, 1Time, Skywise, Pheonix, SA Express, Nationwide, SAA, the list goes on and on.

Last year saw the start of a new low-cost carrier, Lift. Its founder is a highly experienced person, with many years in airline management. Despite all the pomp and ceremony, the airline is just getting along. None of the expansion many people hoped for. Despite some clever marketing tactics, it has yet to be a significant addition to the South African market. The irony is that it might experience some growth in the coming months, but at the demise of another airline that is heading down the road to failure, Mango

Irrespective of what caused their airlines to cease operations, be it politics, financial, poor management, or whatever, they have come and gone. The Government is determined to have SAAv2 flying in a few months time, but with their past record of SOE management, it's only going to go one way. With a CEO that has absolutely no experience in airline management, has openly stated he is only there to get financial backing to complete his MBA, there are no ways it will ever succeed. My gut feeling is that it will need a bailout before it ever starts to fly and will be a political nightmare, to be kind to it. Some things are not going to change

After the carnage of the last year, there has been a consolidation of airlines and airline operations. It has left the country with five airlines, Airlink, who were lucky to survive, after the disgusting treatment they got from SAA, Cemair (who remembers the shocking treatment they got from the CAA and don’t tell me SAA and politics had nothing to do with it), Comair, Lift and Safair.

With a population of 60 million can we afford any more airlines? Remember that the vast majority of that 60 million has no clue about aviation and will never ever fly, so we actually have a very small market that potentially flies. Lift excluded, the other four airlines have been hard at work improving their efficiency and route structure and seem to be doing very well, given the present circumstances we find ourselves in at the moment, and for the foreseeable future.

Domestic travel has, according to the latest figures from ACSA, recovered remarkably well and figures are at 61% of those prior to the harsh lockdown last year. I am sure many of you will say what about Mango? Let's be honest, its days are numbered. From a once fourteen aircraft fleet, they are trying to run a schedule with only three aircraft, no backup aircraft, and you cant even book on a flight! It's almost as if the Department of Public Enterprise is just propping it up until its new SAAv2 is ready to fly and then they will bin it. So it's just like a tin can being kicked down the road. Brutal, yes, but that’s the reality. It's depressing to see so many great airline personnel, both on the ground and in the air, who are all professional in their approach to the job and the way they conduct themselves, having to go to work, knowing that they could be out of a job in a few weeks.

AirLink and Cemair have found a market where their services are needed. Both on the smaller domestic routes and regional routes, they are consolidating their operations and are showing signs of some growth. Long may it last. With several types of aircraft in their fleets, they are able to adapt to the needs of the various routes and ensure that they use the aircraft best suited to the route, to ensure maximum returns.

Comair, in the process of emerging from its business rescue (yes SAA and the Government it can work), seems to likewise, be consolidating and growing again. Its strategy of keeping the two brands, appealing to different markets seems to be returning and proving successful. There is no doubt that the British Airways brand has taken over the business travel market from SAA.

Safair has also seen some amazing growth since it aggressively entered the domestic market a few years ago. They have also found a niche market for themselves and their recently announced Safair Holidays is sure to be a stunning success and a winner with their passengers.

Comair and Safair are concentrating their operations around one aircraft type – the Boeing 737 and around the “Golden Triangle”, namely Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban and their route structures are built around this. Comair is also taking the British Airways brand to some regional routes and has chosen them carefully and growing them slowly.

This leaves the question, do we need more airlines? The utopian answer to that would be yes, it would be great to see more airlines, but the harsh reality? I think we don’t need any more. I might be wrong and there will be critics that say we do, but sit and think about it. I know there are many people desperate for work and would jump at the opportunity to fly again, but can the economy afford it and can we afford to see more broken hearts?

Many aviation personnel were left without incomes last year and have been forced to find work elsewhere and some have taken that plunge and done it and are doing very well, so it can be done. Ideally, it would be great to see those people, some with many years of experience in flying and management still in aviation, and I am sure they will bring a lot of value to any new airline, but one needs to be realistic and take a long hard look at reality. It's depressing to see so many friends jobless, and all I want is for all of them to be flying and working again, but the reality is it's not going to happen. At least not in the short term, if at all.

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