Ferial Haffajee: What if FlySafair were to run SAA?

Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)
Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)

I just love FlySafair. The budget airline is efficient and fast. It's cheap and innovative.

As poor SAA lost its eighth CEO last week and the head of ops Zuks Ramasia climbed into the pilot's seat in an acting capacity on Monday, I have been reading up on how to make SAA work and on why it doesn't.

Everybody and their aunty have a say, which is a problem. In former CEO Vuyani Jarana's excellent resignation letter, he touched on the problem of having a Rubik's cube of reporting lines that are as difficult to line up as the puzzle.

In the past week, I've seen the pilots demanding to determine who runs the show; the cabin attendants had their say, and all the different trade unions who organise in various parts of the airline dipped in too.

At FlySafair, Elmar Conradie is CEO and navigates the airline – he doesn't have to consult two government departments, the board, the unions and the pilots' association to take decisions before take-off. It's one reason the budget carrier is doing so well – as are other private sector players.

There's another, more vital lesson. FlySafair exists to get its customers from Point A to Point B as cheaply, quickly and efficiently as possible. Poor SAA has to do a whole lot of other things. At the moment, it's a debt sinkhole. So, in Friday's briefing on the state-of-affairs post-Jarana, there was discussion only about finding a new CEO and about the depth of the debt.

Without a government bailout of R3.5bn for working capital by the end of this month, it will have its wings clipped, and that is on top of a R9.2bn debt burden. So, SAA's sole focus in not on you and me, its passengers, but on raising debt finance and paying it off.

At the pink budget airline, the focus is on the customer and on how to improve margins on a no-frills flyer.

I often fly business class, not because I'm fancy, but because I like getting on and off aeroplanes as quickly as possible so I can do whatever I have to. Because FlySafair is customer-focused, they can study the needs of their passengers, and so I was delighted to find out that you can now buy seats near the front or back exits; and you can buy a spot in a fast-lane to get on more quickly. It's constantly innovating with the customer in mind. The airline has queue-walkers who have nifty gadgets and can check you in instead of having to wait to get to the counter.

I know FlySafair has had its problems, but the past few times I've flown, it has taken off and landed with great efficiency, and it requests us to be part of the efficiency drive by asking that passengers put the seat-belts in position for the next lot of passengers. The staff are trained for customer service and for speed. SAA is almost 100 years old and it is showing.

The airline is lumbering; its reward system is dated; its staff are tired and unhappy. Moreover, the kleptocratic decade has left pockmarks on the national carrier. Under the tenure of the woman who is also former President Jacob Zuma's convenor of his personal charity, Dudu Myeni, the logic of SAA was repurposed to be a tender machine for cronies. SAA Technical was depleted of technocrats and the place bled money. That all piled on the debt. The airline's purpose is no longer about getting its passengers up and down safely, efficiently and comfortably, and that should be the only function of an airline.

For travellers, the ownership of an airline does not really matter. Ethiopian Airlines is currently the only profitable African airline. If South Africa is insistent about the prestige of having a national carrier – but does not have the maturity to let its aviators get on with running it, like the Ethiopian government does – then why not let people like FlySafair, with some track-record of aviation and a flair for customer service, do the job?

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