South African Airways was conceived in the winter of 1934, when the South African government acquired Union Airways. As part of the deal the new administration received various aircraft that included a de Havilland DH60 Gypsy Moth, one de Havilland DH80A Puss Moth along with three Junkers F13s and A50s. Furthermore, 40 members of staff were transferred to government payroll continuing their work for the airline.
It continued to make gradual expansions adding more regional destinations and aircraft until after the second world war when SAA began to see significant growth in response to increased travel demands and growing passenger numbers.
Known as the Springbok service, SAA cycled the destinations of Palmietfontein, Nairobi, Khartoum, Cairo, Castel, Benito–Hurn and Bournemouth (The main UK airport before Heathrow). The journey took three days to complete with overnight stops at Nairobi and Cairo. It grew so fast in popularity that SAA went from offering a single Springbok service per week to six. It was at this time that the airline purchased Douglas DC-3 and -4 aircraft that covered domestic routes between Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
As the years moved on, the airline embraced the jet era with the integration of BOAC de Havilland Comet along with the Douglas DC-7B model that was capable of conducting long-haul flights. With them, SAA scheduled 21-hour flights to London with one refueling stop at Khartoum. This duration was decreased to 18 hours when the stop was transferred to Kano, Nigeria. Meanwhile, the airline also operated its Wallaby route that flew eastward, spanning the destinations of Johannesburg, Mauritius, Cocos Islands, and Perth. By 1960 SAA had acquired its first Boeing 707-320 aircraft that were deployed on the routes to London and Australia, along with adding a flight to New York via Rio De Janeiro.
In the years that followed, albeit political turmoil, South Africa Airways grew to be one of the most active African flyers adding more destinations that included Paris, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv and Seychelles. Meanwhile, its fleet grew to include updated Boeing models such as the 737, along with Airbus A300 aircraft.
By the early 2000s, South African Airways had heaved a reputation as a cargo transporter alongside its passenger services. Furthermore, its application to join Star Alliance was met with success and it became the first African member in 2006. Albeit attempts to restrict routes to save costs, less than a decade later the airline began facing financial difficulties that ultimately lead to its recent grounding.
In 2017, SAA had begun to reduce its fleet and announced to reduce flight operations by 23%. Having been rejected loans by Standard Chartered along with Citibank, the South African government stepped in providing the airline with $147.9 million dollars in an effort to save the situation.
Although it had been placed in bankruptcy protection by the government along with cutting more flights (such as to Munich) to further reduce costs, SAA eventually hit bankruptcy in 2020. This came as a result of the heavy toll inflicted by the covid-19 pandemic, along with the fact that the government stopped funding the airline as it had failed to generate profit since 2011.
In May of 2020, South African authorities provided an official statement announcing the end of SAA’s service with the intention to create a new flag carrier in the near future.
A Fight to Remain
The government’s decision was met with heavy opposition by the airline’s employees who saw that albeit financial pressures, the government had chosen to shut down the airline without a convincing rescue plan, leading to a legal battle that ran between May to July. Although told to halt operations by 8th of May 2020, airline personnel continued operating cargo and repatriation flights, whilst taking the matter to South Africa’s Labour Court.
The end of court proceedings concluded with the airline’s creditors voting to keep the airline alive, requiring the government to provide a figure of $597.8 million. As a result SAA will be privatised with a 51% share of the company being passed to Takatso consortium which allotted around $200 million to revamp the airline and resume operations, considering the figure to be sufficient for 12-36 months of operations.
Coming out of hibernation, SAA has once again obtained its air operators certificate (AOC) from the South African Department of Civil Aviation. It is set to resume operations with domestic and regional flights covering the destinations of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Accra, Kinshasa, Harare, Lusaka and Maputo.
Speaking with ch-aviation, interim CEO of SAA Thomas Kgokolo said “This is an important development as SAA readies itself to take to the skies again in just a few weeks,” he continued, “at our Airways Park headquarters, in hangars, and at terminals around the country, our staff are hard at work in finishing the final preparatory phases before we make an official announcement about the exact take-off date.”
In terms of aircraft, the airline is set to resume operations with eight Airbus planes; three A319-100s, two A320-200s, two A340-600s and a single A330-300, all of which are leased with the exception of the A340-600 which remain the property of SAA.
Having had an initial run that spanned 86 years, it appears that SAA will not remain grounded as a result of financial turmoil or a pandemic. A feat that is congruent with the airline’s long history that saw challenges met with perseverance.
While the road to recovery will be long and difficult, especially for the airline to regain its international span and public confidence, this is another chance for SAA to restructure and prove itself once again.