Are SAA's pilots ready to fly again? Preparations are 'advanced', says DPE

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The Department of Public Enterprises believes SAA's pilots will be trained and ready to fly once the airline becomes operational again. (Unsplash)
The Department of Public Enterprises believes SAA's pilots will be trained and ready to fly once the airline becomes operational again. (Unsplash)
  • The Department of Public Enterprises believes SAA's pilots will be trained and ready to fly once the airline becomes operational again.
  • SAA plans to take to the skies again in August following a lengthy business rescue process.
  • The deputy minister of public enterprises and the DPE's acting director general gave the assurance that safety and security will not be compromised.

Before SAA takes to the skies again, it will ensure its pilots have the necessary training and hours needed for the task, the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) told Parliament on Wednesday.

Advocate Melanchton Makobe - acting director-general of the state-owned airline's shareholder, the DPE - told Parliament's National Council of Provinces (NCOP) that the training of pilots was a "very important aspect" of the process to get SAA operational again.

He was responding to concerns raised by NCOP member Willie Aucamp (DA) during a joint meeting of the NCOP's Select Committee on Appropriations and Select Committee on Public Enterprises and Communications. The DPE briefed the committee on the expenditure of the R7.8 billion transferred to SAA in the 2020/21 financial year to implement its business rescue plan.

Aucamp said, being a pilot himself, he knows the dangers of pilots not having flown enough flying hours.

"It is perhaps one of the most important things for us to know ... that our SAA pilots are 110% (sic) up to standard with what they need to do to transport people safely."

"At this stage, being a pilot myself, I won't fly SAA knowing [most] pilots did not fly for over a year. You need to be sharp behind the instruments. How do we ensure SAA has the best pilots in the world?"
- Willie Aucamp

Makobe responded that SAA's interim board and management, in preparing for the airline's restart, are looking at all relevant regulatory compliance in terms of civil aviation regulations.

"SAA is known as a very safe airline and we will not compromise," said Makobe. This assurance was echoed by Deputy Minister of Public Enterprises Phumulo Masualle.

"Preparations to get SAA flying again is quite advanced and, regarding concerns raised by [Aucamp] about whether the pilots are ready, I want to say the issue of the safety of passengers is very important and we will not be in favour of just having pilots fly without taking due regard to regulations," said Masualle.

Pilot deadlock

Members of the SAA Pilots' Association (SAAPA) – which represents nearly 90% of the pilots at SAA – has been locked out since mid-December last year. A lockout means an employer is not obliged to pay their salaries and it is an attempt by the airline to get SAAPA to agree to cancel its long-standing regulating agreement and accept new terms of employment. While still locked out, SAAPA members declared a strike earlier this year to prevent a situation where the company lifts the lock-out only for some pilots, especially training pilots, who are needed to get SAA back in the air again.

Makobe told the NCOP that R800 million of R7.8 billion transferred to SAA to date to implement its rescue plan has been ring-fenced for outstanding salaries, pending a court case. Next week, the Labour Court is set to hear an application by SAAPA regarding payment claims and whether SAA's actions have been lawful in using so-called "scab" labour for pilot training.

According to Makobe, the R800 million that was ring-fenced should be sufficient to deal with the problem.   

"SAA and the pilots are nearing getting a settlement. Talks are at an advanced stage, and we expect a settlement. The only outstanding issue is the amounts pilots are requiring and the period of the lockout. They are challenging this and want to be paid before they are willing to end their regulating agreement," said Makobe.

Masualle added that, although the DPE would be uncomfortable if monies due do not reach employees, in practice there will always be disputes.

"When there is a dispute, there is a legal process to resolve it," he said.

According to Nonny Mashika, who serves on the aviation team of the DPE, more than 200 SAA pilots have already taken voluntary severance packages.

"As SAA as prepares for resuming [operations], it has to make sure training includes the overall ecosystem so that the airline meets safety regulations and standards - not only of the SA Civil Aviation Authority, but also of that in Europe and the US, for example, if the airline operates internationally," she said.

"The pilot training will make sure standards are met and that pilots have the right aptitude and experience. On average, SAA pilots have over 18 years of experience. It is critical to reassure the public that SAA's operations will meet the right safety standards going forward."

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan told Parliament last week that the aim is to get SAA off the ground by August this year. Key for this to happen is obtaining a strategic equity partner. He said the process is already at the due diligence phase.

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