SAA flies on empty as travellers desert ailing airline

Travellers desert struggling SAA over flight cancellations

02 February 2020 - 00:02
Rows of empty seats on an SAA flight from London to SA.
Image: Twitter Rows of empty seats on an SAA flight from London to SA.

While the government has pumped an additional R3.5bn into ailing state carrier SAA, passengers report that some flights are half-empty as trust in the airline goes into free fall. Experts have also warned against investing good money into unsustainable businesses.

In November one of SA's largest travel retailers, Flight Centre, announced it would stop selling SAA tickets. At the same time, Travel Insurance Consultants said it would no longer cover SAA tickets against insolvency.

SAA would not comment on ticket sales this week, but several passengers have described almost empty flights.

On Thursday, SAA announced it would cancel 48 local and international flights this month to cut costs. Flights into and out of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, East London, Windhoek and Nairobi were among those affected.

The previous week the struggling state airline had cancelled flights on low-demand routes at short notice.


Loan provided by the Development Bank of Southern Africa

SAA is under business rescue, with practitioners trying to keep it operational.

Nozipho Achonu-Douglasson, who arrived home from China on Friday, said she had not been able to find an SAA flight and had to use a different airline. "I was so disappointed, as I always use SAA as a local carrier."


Amount needed to turn around SAA

Nkhumbuleni Elgin Mbada, who flew to OR Tambo airport from Munich with SAA, said his flight to Germany four days previously had been half-empty.

"Going to Munich there were about 60 passengers on a flight that takes close to 150," he said.


Estimated cost to fly a plane between SA and London

Aviation analyst Guy Leitch estimated that the cost of a flight between London and SA - one of SAA's busiest routes - was R1m for the airline. "Flying a half-empty or an empty flight from London is financial suicide. SAA pays around R400,000 in fuel on a flight, in addition to accommodation for the crew."

He said partly full flights should rather be combined.

Economist Mike Schussler said he expected SAA to use most of its bailout money from the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) for day-to-day expenses such as salaries, fuel and aircraft maintenance. But, he said, the DBSA should not be funding airlines.

On Thursday, the business rescue practitioners, Les Matuson and Siviwe Dongwana, said in a statement that the DBSA's funding would be used to keep the airline operational.

SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali said the scrapping of unprofitable flights was part of a turnaround plan.

Flying a half-empty or an empty flight from London is financial suicide
Guy Leitch, aviation expert

Tlali said the rescue plan should be ready to be presented to creditors by the end of the month.

In December last year the SAA board adopted a resolution to put the airline into business rescue. At the time, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan said R4bn was needed.

Zazi Sibanyoni-Mugambi, president of the South African Cabin Crew Association, said the union did not oppose the cancellation of flights and routes.

"We understand that the cancellation of flights will assist in the long-term vision of keeping SAA operational."