NATIONAL carrier South African Airways (SAA) telegraphed its return to the skies possibly in early September with the arrival of two Airbus 320s from Abu Dhabi to muscle back market share from rivals FlySafair and Airlink.
Sources said the aircraft, each with the capacity to carry 138 passengers, will spearhead the airline's return on the domestic market between Johannesburg and Cape Town, as well as the Durban route, in its first forays.
The airline said the aircraft, which were among those sent back to lessors, were placed in storage and given six-year maintenance checks in Abu Dhabi during the airline's time in business rescue, and had now been given “rigorous technical checks” and cleared for passenger flights.
Acting chief executive Thomas Kgokolo, in internal official communication, told staff that the airline had received its renewed operating licence from the Civil Aviation Authority, had reached settlement agreements with pilots, offers had been made to managers, and on specialist pilot positions.
“Internally, the SAA restart plans are at full thrust and the employee re-boarding project is in motion,” he said.
Organised labour, the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa, the South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca) and the South African Airways Pilots Association (Saapa) though, said yesterday that they had not been engaged in the processes and had a gripe over outstanding issues, including the retrenchments of more than 3 000 staff, rehiring policies, the alleged breaking of a social contract by SAA and exclusion from consultations as key stakeholders.
“Even us as key stakeholders do not know the nitty-gritties, which is a huge concern for us. You need all stakeholders working together, but here the unions are on the outside looking in.
“The arrival of the A320s is a good thing and we hope the rehiring process as SAA regains market share will include those who had to leave on voluntary service packages,” said Sacca's Zazi Sibanyoni.
She said unions still had issues on the table at the CCMA over conditions of employment for cabin and ground crew.
Saapa's Cathy Bill said the association itself was restructuring as new pilots were being engaged by SAA and it would assess its position with a new executive in place, while Numsa's Phakamile Hlubi-Majola confirmed the unions had not been involved up to this stage.
Kgokolo said that at Air Chefs and South African Airways Technical, section 189 retrenchment processes were underway “and once restructured, the SAA Group will have 'fit for purpose' subsidiaries that will support and become the conduit for growth of the aviation industry in the country.”
Sources said with more than R13 billion in its kitty, about R10.5bn from government and the R3bn contribution Takatso Consortium estimates it would require to fund the first 12 to 36 months of working capital, SAA was ready to become operational again, although it would cautiously start off with domestic routes and work its way to the regional and Trans-Atlantic flights.
Aviation Analyst Phuthego Mojapele said SAA's imminent return was a good thing for passengers, as rivals including Airlink had taken advantage of the empty skies by also increasing fares, to the chagrin of consumers.
“Operators who stayed on in the level 3 lockdown were starting to abuse the market. People are asking why the fare to Cape Town has increased so much. It has become very expensive,” he said.
The competition is stiffening with Emirates Airlines also announcing resumption of its flights later this month, while Delta Airways is already plying the Trans-Atlantic route and is sour at being denied permission for the Atlanta-Cape Town schedule.
Comair as well is reported ready to start in September after flying into a stall when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a return to level 3 of lockdown last month.
“There are so many airlines starting up again and our own are nowhere to be found. This is the right time for SAA to come back to compete, it has got to participate in this market,” Mojapele said.
The Takatso consortium comprises Harith General Partners chaired by former deputy finance minister Jabulani Moleketi as well as Global Aviation represented by Gidon Novick
Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, announcing the new structure in June, said the partnership would see SAA receiving a R3bn boost from the strategic partners. The Takatso Consortium will own the majority of SAA shares at 51 percent, with the government holding the rest.