SAA will never be the proud carrier it once was. The airline that used to fly the South African flag as far as the remote corners of Europe, such as Manchester and Athens, is long gone. Even the airline that we knew from ten years ago is gone. In 2010, SAA employed around 800 pilots. This has dropped to 650, and is going to drop a whole lot more.
SAA’s slogan used to be: ‘Bringing the World to Africa. Taking Africa to the World’. It competed on the international stage, but now has limited its vision to being just a regional carrier, mostly supplying feeder services to other mainline flag carriers such as BA and Emirates.
SAA’s latest CEO, Mr Vuyani Jarana, is committed to making the airline profitable, and that means right sizing it. He claims many of the long-haul routes are inherently unprofitable. So routes have been cut and will continue to be cut. Yet airline theory holds that a 20% cut in seats will result in a disproportionately larger loss of market share – perhaps 25%. So the airline may be trapped in a vicious downward spiral.
This will have a profound impact on the demand for pilots. Many have already left, but those with high seniority and an established life in South Africa are unlikely to be prepared to move to another country like the ‘sandpit’ and more junior seniority.
I have done an in-depth interview with Mr Jarana for this month’s FlightCom. I asked him about the future of pilots and their pay. He replied, “We engaged with all the people of SAA – all the labour unions, including the Pilots’ Association – to find the right configuration of the line and to agree on what kind of trade-offs and sacrifices ought to be made by all of us, pilots included, to bring SAA into a competitive position in the market.
“Of priority is to get productivity up and optimise the cost to income ratios across all cost line items. We are navigating the issues and I think everyone is aware that we don’t have many options in this regard, nor do we have the luxury of time to get ourselves out the situation in which we find ourselves. What is important is to get everyone to commit to the plan. Whilst it is important to take everyone along on this journey, I am acutely aware that not everyone is going to be excited about the journey we have to walk. I also think that, under the circumstances, people are not necessarily expecting us to agree on everything; at some point as the CEO, I will call things for the benefit of the airline.
“Morale has been low. The reason is that no one can be happy when you are working for a loss-making organisation. We have to walk the difficult path to build a new culture at SAA, a winning culture with the customer at its centre.”
It is unlikely that SAA will employ new pilots for many years to come.