SAA’s shrink­age af­ter cap­ture years won’t cost peanuts

Sunday Times - - Business | Opinion & Bits - by Fe­rial Haf­fa­jee

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.

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