SAA pilots hope airline will be saved - but if that fails, there's always the Middle East

If it takes job cuts to make SAA sustainable, the state-owned airline's pilots could find alternative opportunities in a region like the Middle East, where there is a huge demand for pilots, Captain Grant Back, chairperson of the SAA Pilots' Association, told Fin24 on Monday.

"We have to wait and see what the numbers will dictate regarding possible retrenchments and downsizing at SAA.

"If the business rescue practitioners (BRPs) present figures that make sense, and we can establish these as accurate, then obviously we will work with them on their plan, but the plan must still be formulated and presented. They will need buy-in from labour, and in order for that to happen, the process must be transparent," he said.

"SAAPA will cooperate with the BRPs in their quest to try and save SAA. Of course, our members would like to see SAA as well as South Africa succeed, and finding a new job might mean having to relocate."

He said currently, there are more than 540 pilots who actively fly for SAA. It usually takes six to 10 years to qualify as a commercial pilot and be eligible to join an airline.

According to Back, it would be good to finally see what plan the BRPs submit. At the moment, the BRPs have a finite amount of working capital available to try and keep the airline operating day-to-day.

Waiting for the Budget

"I guess we would have to wait for the announcement of the National Budget to hear what monies government will allocate to SAA," said Back.

"I think SAA is worth saving and, with the right skills, it can be turned around. On top of that, if a state-owned enterprise like SAA is turned around, that could boost the confidence in SA as a country and positively affect the psyche of the nation."

He added that, unlike the aviation sector in the developed world, where there are many airlines and a huge resource pool of skills to choose from, there are limited airline skills in SA. In his opinion, it would therefore be a good idea to look for an SAA CEO from outside South Africa - "someone who understands the airline industry and especially has experience in turning an airline the size of SAA around".

"With the right skills in place in management, it will go a long way to get SAA back on track," he said.

Last year, before SAA went into business rescue, SAAPA voted on a motion of no confidence in the SAA senior management and the acting CEO. SAAPA also told the Department of Public Enterprises that in their view, a hands-on individual is needed to stabilise the airline, someone who understands the running of an airline the size of SAA and who can rally the employees to get the best out of the airline.

"We don't have time to appoint someone who does not understand the airline industry," Back said.

UPDATE: Back wants to make it clear that the SAA pilots do not want to leave SA as it would mean that they would have to relocate their families. However, if they are forced to leave, the Middle East would be an option.

"We want the SAA recovery to work. We have wonderfully skilled personnel who need to be empowered within SAA and can make a difference. We are all fighting to make SAA a success. The pilots of SAA are sensitive to all employees at the airline during this difficult time. Along with all of labour, SAAPA is doing all it can to ensure that, through the right appointments, leadership and skills, the airline can return to profitability," said Back. "We are proudly South African and wish to fix SAA and stay here."

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