Old age and inefficiency weigh heavy on South African Airways

The sheer distance between South Africa and the rest of the world is one of the reasons the country’s national airline has traditionally favoured long-haul aircraft.

The dictates of South Africa’s geographical position means that SAA flies routes that are far from main destinations such as Europe, the United States, Asia and the Middle East.

The flight time to Abu Dhabi from Cape Town, for instance, is 12 hours.

South African Airways (SAA) was one of the first airlines to purchase a fleet of Junkers Ju 52/3m, way back in 1934, a tri-motor aircraft that was probably the world’s first multi-engine airliner.

The fleet of about 15 served SAA well all over the African continent and the airline still has one flying for heritage events.

SAA was also one of the first to order the ill-fated De Havilland Comet, the first commercial jet liner to take to the skies soon after the Second World War; the aircraft was a pioneering piece of technology but poor understanding of metal fatigue led to design flaws that caused a number of crashes. One of those was an SAA flight from Rome in 1954, destined for Cairo and Johannesburg. It broke apart mid-air off the coast of Italy killing all 21 people on board.

Overall, the airline has an excellent safety record but, given how long it has been operating, accidents have been perhaps inevitable. By far the worst incident in its almost 90 year history was the loss of the Helderberg, a Boeing 747-200B Combi en route to Johannesburg from Taipei. In the early hours of the morning in November 1987, off the coast of Mauritius, the crew reported a fire on board. Soon after, the plane fell into the sea.

No cause was ever found, although many suspected shenanigans by the then-apartheid military establishment, which may have been using the aircraft to smuggle contraband explosives. At the time, international sanctions meant the white regime had to use underhanded means to acquire military material.

Today, SAA has a fleet of about 55 aircraft, mostly from the Airbus stable, which are on average 10 years old, SAA says. The Airbus A340 is the backbone of its long-haul routes even though the four-engined aircraft has fallen out of favour with many airlines because of the higher maintenance and fuel costs associated with it; for this reason, Airbus discontinued it in 2011.

SAA’s acting chief executive Nico Bezuidenhoudt told a parliamentary briefing recently that the fleet was 34 per cent older than its major direct competitors on the continent, which was the main reason for an 800 million rand (Dh235m) impairment loss in the 2014 financial year.

However, the decline in the price of crude, the basis of jet fuel, has brought some relief. “Oil has dropped so drastically that an aircraft with four engines is now a little bit more economically viable. So we still have to change it but not necessarily tomorrow,” Mr Bezuidenhoudt says.

Still, fuel remains the biggest single expense, accounting for 36 per cent of the group’s operating costs, according to the airline.

In the meantime SAA continues to build its reputation as a pan-African carrier. “SAA operates to nearly 50 per cent of African Union states, presently the most extensive network in Africa,” says the airline’s spokesman Tlali Tlali. Prior to the Etihad partnership, first announced in July last year and extended in March, nearly three quarters of SAA’s international seat capacity was allocated to the African market, including about 47 per cent within southern Africa itself.

The SAA chief executive Nico Bezuidenhout has set a target to increase revenue from Africa by 30 per cent in the next 12 to 18 months.

Central to SAA’s business plan is a hub in Ghana, west Africa, which would open up secondary destinations in the region and accelerate growth in the intra-Africa market. Accra is better positioned geographically for a larger chunk of the continent than Johannesburg, SAA’s current hub and home country.

“In addition, with growth forecast in Africa pegged at a five per cent aggregate, access to African markets along with the extended global network our partners serve will offer customers seamless continental travel,” Mr Tlali adds.


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