Don't blame us for bad management, SAA pilots tell government

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It costs almost R1 million per pilot in order to qualify as an airline transport pilot.
It costs almost R1 million per pilot in order to qualify as an airline transport pilot.
Gallo Images/Jacques Stander
  • The SAA Pilots' Association says government should focus on mismanagement at the airline and not blame it for past ills.
  • It was due to legal action by the association, for instance, that former SAA chair Dudu Myeni was declared a delinquent director.
  • SAAPA believes by criticising them, the DPE and rescue practitioners want to take attention away from not dealing with the "real" causes of the airline's demise.

Rather than blaming the pilots at South African Airways (SAA) for the financial troubles of the state-owned airline and the lack of aviation transformation, the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) - SAA's shareholder - and the business rescue practitioners should focus on mismanagement at the airline and its subsidiary SAA Technical in the past.

This is according to Captain Grant Back, chairperson of the SAA Pilots' Association (SAAPA). In a statement on Friday, Back said it was thanks to SAAPA that former SAA chair Dudu Myeni was found to be a delinquent director by the High Court. She is in the process of appealing the judgment.

According to Back, the "looting and corruption" at SAA and SAA Technical was highlighted in various SAA forensic reports in the past, as well as at the Zondo Commission into State Capture.

It was SAAPA and the Organisation Against Tax Abuse (OUTA) who made the application to have Myeni declared a delinquent director.

Painting pilots as villains

"The rescue practitioners are compelled by the Companies Act to recover the misappropriated assets of SAA [and] investigate and rectify voidable transactions. Instead, the DPE and the rescue practitioners are painting the pilots as the villains and attempting to blame them for the airline's lamentable situation," says Back.

At the heart of the current deadlock between SAAPA members and the rescue practitioners is the pilots' regulation agreement (RA). SAAPA members have been locked out since 18 December 2020 because no agreement could be reached on ending the agreement, which has been in existence since 1988 and the latest version signed in 2014. 

"The regulating agreement covers, protects and sets the terms and conditions of all pilots in SAA, regardless of race or gender, and to pretend that this is an apartheid-era agreement is illogical and as fallacious as claiming that any agreement or legislation from before 1994 only entrenches the rights of a select few," says Back.

In his view, it is an attempt by the DPE "to distract from its own failings and contribution to SAA's demise".

"SAA had many profitable years since 1988, most notably from 2009 to 2011 until Ms Myeni's appointment by the department. Blaming the Regulating Agreement for SAA's lack of profitability and financial distress cannot be and is not correct," says Back.

He says the seniority system used in terms of the agreement is used in almost all airlines in the world and is a crucial safety component in protecting pilots and allowing them to make decisions in the best interests of safety at all times, even when this conflicts with the commercial interests of the airline.

System 'holds back transformation'

"The DPE claim this system is unlawful because it holds back transformation and does not allow for the acceleration and promotion of pilots from the designated groups (DG) as defined in the Employment Equity Act. What the DPE fails to mention is that it is not the seniority system that has not accelerated the advancement of DG pilots, it is the fact that the airline has shrunk to a shadow of its former self as a result of the mismanagement and dereliction of oversight over its affairs by the board and the DPE themselves," says Back.

From 2000 to 2009, SAA employed 812 pilots but has over the last 11 years the number of pilots reduced to only 625 before business rescue and that will now shortly be catastrophically cut to 88 pilot positions.

Back says SAA has for several years, and with SAAPA's concurrence, employed only DG pilots as new entry pilots, irrespective of whether or not there were more qualified and experienced white pilots who had applied. 

"If the airline had expanded by as little as 3% a year, the DG pilots' progress would have been accelerated. Instead of expanding SAA, the shareholder has chosen to expand Mango, a subsidiary of SAA, to the detriment of SAA," he says.

"SAA is the most transformed airline in the country at the pilot level, at one stage employing 85% of all holders of an Airline Transport Pilot License from the DG. It must also be recognised that it is SAA that employs pilots and is responsible for the demographic composition of the pilot group, not SAAPA."

It costs almost R1 million in order to qualify as an airline transport pilot.

"Even then, that pilot does not yet have the skills and experience to take the controls of a large, high-performance, jet transport aircraft," says Back.

"At one stage, SAA ran a cadet pilot programme which greatly assisted in the talent pipeline of DG pilots, but this scheme was stopped due to a lack of funding, again caused by the mismanagement of SAA. The Transport SETA has poured over R140 million into pilot training but has been able to produce fewer than 30 ATP license holders for that significant investment," says Back. 

The DPE and rescue practitioners has been asked for comment and this article will be updated once it is received.

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