SAA’s shrinkage after capture years won’t cost peanuts
The agents offered me a variety of airlines as they booked a seat to London for me. British Airways. Virgin. SAA. My instinct was for Virgin or British, but my loyalty is with SAA, the national airline battling to resurrect itself after years of corruption and capture. I had read about how valiantly the new CEO, Vuyani Jarana, is trying to get the carrier’s head above water. And so I clicked SAA on the menu of options, even though it was marginally more expensive. As I went to check in last Saturday, the clerk clearly had a problem, and a process that usually takes a minute or three had her grimacing at the screen and looking nervously at me.
I had been bumped despite my ticket which was a full fare, purchased neither on discount nor miles. I’m from Bosmont, where they cook tough in the soup and where we are born with steel-tipped elbows, so I kicked up a squeal. But it was to no end. A supervisor explained that the airline had changed from a big to a small plane and many of us had been bumped back. It is part of the big cost cut.
On a flight to Accra, Ghana, in May, the cost-cutting on SAA was clear. We were all getting peckish after a sparse lunch, and I asked for peanuts. “We don’t do those anymore,” said an apologetic cabin attendant. What about an apple? Or a banana? She shook her head.
Two weeks ago, I flew Emirates to Lisbon because SAA has cut
European routes and Angolan
Airlines (the cheapest, quickest option) has such a bad reputation on Tripadvisor I’d be a fool to book that airline. Jarana was on board, and I thought it odd, until I remembered that SAA has no flights to Dubai and codeshares with Emirates. Emirates is, in my opinion, the world’s best airline, and, later that week I read that Jarana is trying to outsource both cabin attendants and pilots to the Gulf’s aviation behemoth. That’s where SAA is at now: outsourcing its staff, getting smaller, becoming regional and national rather than the African leader it aspires to be. Whereas SAA once opened up routes as investors flocked to the rest of Africa, it, together with its smaller sister, SA Express, is rapidly shutting down routes which are harming its strategy of capitalising on growing intracontinental trade.
The jury’s out on whether we should have a national carrier that needs R28-billion simply to stay in the air and it is yet another example of how we are paying for the kleptocratic years of former president Jacob Zuma. SAA is suffering after years of mismanagement when the board was chaired by Dudu Myeni, Zuma’s friend and chair of his charity. The Myeni era wore SAA down as it cohered around a logic of patronage. She was more concerned with shaking down suppliers for subcontracts and bringing her cronies into every part of the value chain than providing the leadership required of the chair of an important board. It’s the same story at almost every state-owned company where Zuma placed crony upon crony to suck out rents.
Before the era of Zuma, SAA was the champion of African skies, but Ethiopian Airlines is quickly moving to usurp that position. That airline is run by professionals and not politicians. Its operations are no-frill, with none of the huge executive and board pay and perks that is one factor that has upended the national carrier. When I interviewed the head of its Southern Africa operations, we met at the Spur at OR Tambo, which is where, he said, he held all business meetings. As far as I know, they still serve a good nut to their passengers. SAA still has a sterling safety record, and its new executives are trying hard to keep to departure and arrival times. Its staff are, on the whole, kind and professional. But how long will I last as a passenger? Before I boarded last Saturday, I bought a packet of peanuts. Good customers can get accustomed to bad service, such is the level of their loyalty. But, to be honest, if an agent offers me a flight on Virgin, British Airways, Emirates or SAA next time, I will not be ticking the national carrier.