Transform SAA to make it great

There’s a lot to celebrate about South African Airways, despite its many problems, writes THEMBANI MAKATA

South African Airways needs to be transformed in order for it to become sustainable. Transformation that will see the majority of taxpayers being able to access flights on the national carrier. If taxpayers must foot bail-outs, then surely the majority of taxpayers must have access to flying.

Students demanding the decolonisation of higher education in South Africa.  A ten billion rands bailout for South African Airways. Both these, believe it or not, have something in common. They tell a tale of how much more work South Africa, not the government nor the ANC but we as a country, have to do in order to achieve transformation.

The students have rejected this concept of transformation. Yet the jury is still out on that. What is important to understand is the transformation that has already occurred and the form that transformation has taken. Universities, state-owned enterprises, just like the rest of the state, are exemplary of other areas of society which still need transformation.

It was inevitable that the more black students you educated, the more these intellectuals in the making would oppose an education system that is foreign to them and oppressive. While transformation enabled a situation whereby more blacks would enter the higher education system unlike before 1994, racial demographics at our universities remain out of sync with national demographics as whites are still enjoying more access than black, poor students.

Even more so, it is very hard to convince many academics about the direct correlation between the sustainability of the higher education system and the imperative to transform. This correlation exists in so many other instances of sustainability. A more macro example would be to suggest that South Africa is a powder-keg because of its socio-economic situation and thus the imperative for radical transformation in the economy.

Similarly, the sustainability of South African Airways depends fundamentally on its need to transform.

Researchers studying international examples of national carriers mostly indicate the imperative to drastically increase passenger traffic. An article on reforming China’s airline industry: from state-owned monopoly to market dynamism, highlights all the important aspects of governing a national carrier but emphasizes the improvement of a lot of the airlines once more passengers fill cabin seats.

Not always a fan of Bloomberg, the news outlet confirms this thesis when it ran an article a few weeks ago titled, China State Airlines Find Out Home is Where the Profits Are. The article points out that in the past, the three state-owned airlines kept adding on more take-offs to international destinations because they thought that these would satisfy the appetite of the middle class to fly these routes. Instead, what they have done recently is to concentrate on the domestic market, making flights affordable. As a result, passenger traffic was increased to the extent that China Eastern, one of the carriers, could yield a 28 percent increase in net income.

Despite the many negative stories we read as a nation about our national carrier, there are a number of SAA achievements that we must celebrate and be proud of. This year SAA was once again named the ‘Favourite Airline in Africa’, for a third consecutive year, at the Trazee Awards.

In June this year, the national carrier was awarded the ‘best airline staff in Africa’ award by the Skytrax Airline Awards indicating the dedication and the world-class service our pilots and cabin crew deliver.

Not only do they serve a carrier that continues to receive bad publicity but they continue to be true ambassadors of our country, greeting all passengers with that warm South African greeting of ‘sawubona, dumelang’. This award, at the Skytrax Airline Awards, ensured that for 15 consecutive years the 4-star carrier received an award.

In May this year, SAA Cargo, a subsidiary of SAA, bagged another award by winning the international place of the 2017 Air Cargo Airline of the Year. SAA Cargo was also voted the best cargo airline in Africa by readers of Air Cargo News while SAA maintained its stage two status in the international environmental assessment programme. Very few airlines maintain these international environmental standards and SAA prides itself as being an airline that prioritises environmental sustainability.

In 2005, SAA for the first time flew to Medina, carrying Muslim pilgrims going on Haj; the first non-Saudi airline to do so. It currently serves 75 destinations worldwide, has a number of subsidiaries, among them SA Express and Mango, while flying an estimated 19 million passengers this past year.

There is room to be proud of our national airline and to celebrate it. We can only deal with the bad apples if we identify the good ones too.

SAA lists as one of its objectives providing excellent customer service and in this respect, they are doing exceptionally well. The awards prove it. Yet we hardly hear about this.

They also list fostering performance excellence as an objective and here too it is possible to say that the workers seem to be delivering an excellent service while management needs to get their act together.

Yet achieving consistent, efficient and effective operations, another objective, as well as maintaining commercial sustainability, also an objective, can only be accomplished if they pursue objective number one: supporting South Africa’s national development agenda.

The article about the Chinese state-owned carriers pointed out the need for these carriers to be aware fundamentally of their role in the developmental agenda set by the Chinese five-year plan.

One would be foolish to suggest that more passengers are the silver bullet to SAA’s turbulence. Yet it would seem that our political discourse these days is all about investigations and commissions as if these are silver bullets. Indeed, a large part is played by matters of governance, political management, fleets, subsidiaries, routes, marketisation, corporatisation, financing, aviation regulation, among many others. At the same time, the global economy and the fluctuation of the Rand ultimately has a bearing on the price of jet fuel which is also a major factor to be considered.

Nonetheless, the start to addressing SAA’s turbulence is for it to be truly considered a national asset. Herein lies its transformation process. Every South African must be able to take ownership of the airline and therefore every South African must be able to access it. It cannot remain in the domain of an elite few. It truly must become the people’s carrier. Once we, as South Africans, take ownership of it, once we start using it and we can start becoming proud of it, only then will sustainability be realised.

In August, a corporate plan was presented to parliament by the SAA board for 2017-2022. It lists as its funding requirement R13.1 billion of which the taxpayer will most probably have to fork out the majority of that cost. Yet the majority of tax-payers never get to fasten their seat-belts. Herein lies the biggest shame. We must recall the words of yesteryear: no taxation without aviation.

Makata is National Secretary General of the South African Students Congress (SASCO) and Deputy Secretary General of the South African Youth Council

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