Fixing South African Airways – What Needs To Be Done?

South Africa Airways is in a dire position, and was long before the current aviation crisis. Can an armchair airline expert come up with a solution to get it back on the world stage and perhaps even thrive? Let us find out.

SAA airline needs a lot of work to be successful again. Photo: Julian Herzog Wikimedia Commons

It has an old fleet

To begin, we need to understand what is wrong with the airline on several fundamental levels. The airline has a diverse fleet of older aircraft. It has:

Airbus A319-100 7
Airbus A320-200 10
Airbus A330-200 6
Airbus A330-300 5
Airbus A340-300 7
Airbus A340-600 4
Airbus A350-900 4

As you can see, the airline operates a fleet of older types that are not very fuel-efficient compared to more modern aircraft. Notably, it has attempted to modernize by renting four Airbus A350s last year, however, the majority of its long-haul fleet are generations behind. For example, it operates more than 10 Airbus A340s. These aircraft certainly do SAA no favors when facing off against competitors from the Middle East and Europe.

SAA needs to get rid of its A340s and use that as an excuse to reduce unprofitable routes.

Additionally, for an airline operating on one of the world’s fastest-growing regions, the carrier has a shockingly small short-haul fleet. Ethiopian Airlines, a rival in Africa, has 32 short-haul narrowbodies and 26 regional aircraft. South African Airways is missing a major opportunity by not expanding out and offering more short-haul services.

The airline does have its own regional arm (South African Express) and low-cost carrier (Mango). Perhaps these could be integrated into the airline instead of having three separate fleets. Whether or not this will save on maintenance and crew remains to be seen.

South African Airways SAA
Inefficient A340s are being removed from the fleet, but not fast enough. Photo: Getty

Problems with the owners

South African Airways is owned by the South African government, and in a bit of an uncomfortable statement, this author suggests that the government is a little bit too involved.

Looking over recent news, we can see that attempts to fix the airline, modernize it and make it competitive have been held up by faceless objections from the government. Funding that had already been agreed on never materialized and union negotiations got sidelined. Agents in the government even asked for the resignation of the business rescuers.

South African Airways needs to clean house. It needs to reapproach its management from the ground up, perhaps through a public-private partnership, and make it appealing for outside investors. However, looking at attempts to privatize Alitalia and Air India should not be ignored. SAA will need to learn from its mistakes and find a new solution.

South African Airways SAA
South African Airways needs to start again from the ground up. Photo: Getty

Perhaps it could partner up with another airline, or even allow an airline to invest (such as Qatar did with Air Italy) to provide the new management style to get over this hurdle.

Lastly, this current crisis may be the perfect thing for the airline. Without having to fly, the company could stand down workers, ask for a proper bailout and truly begin again.

What do you think? Is this the solution to save the airline? Let us know in the comments.