Ferial Haffajee: SAA strike grabs headlines, but the flying market has moved on

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

We thanked our lucky stars flying out to London last Thursday night, the first day of the SAA strike. We had booked BA. It’s much cheaper than flying SAA.  

The British carrier was packed to the gills: there wasn’t a seat to be had from first-class to business and economy, said ground staff. SAA passengers rebooked themselves or the national carrier had to make plans for its clients who had to be somewhere – which, when you think about it, is almost everybody with a booked flight.  

An airline strike is a maximum disruption, which is why they usually make headline news when they happen. The television images of stranded passengers lying on airport floors stuck far away from home (or their destination) speak to the power of trade unions to ground planes, the great birds of the sky.

But last week on leaving and this week on getting back, the strike was barely noticeable at OR Tambo, the Johannesburg international airport. The routes into and out of South Africa (especially the Johannesburg-London and Cape Town-London flights) are so lucrative that a range of airlines fly them.

To get to London, you can fly BA, Virgin and SAA. If you don’t mind a layover, Emirates and Qatar are good value, and so is Ethiopian Airlines, which is quickly replacing SAA as the continent’s leading carrier. In the absence of SAA, if you need to fly on our continent, you can use Ethiopian, Kenya Airways or RwandAir, in addition to SA Express, the regional airline which was not on strike.

And domestically, SAA’s market share of 56% has steadily been whittled down by Comair and its budget operator, Kulula, as well as by the nimble FlySafair, all three of which have proven wily competitors, even faced by the highly subsidised SAA.

Barriers to entry into the low-cost airline market are still high, but the strike this week was more muted than it might have been because there is so much competition. The SAA monopoly has largely been broken by competition. A study for the National Treasury showed how, when FlySafair entered the market, prices came down significantly as it created triangular competition. Eleven airlines hit the skids in the Noughties, according to the study, but Comair and FlySafair seem to be well-captained and sustainable.

A badly treated passenger does not come back

SAA CEO Zuks Ramasia thanked patient passengers this week, but there may not be so many of those left. Last year, SAA bumped me off a long-haul flight, and when I tried to use the coupon they gave me to fly again, the customer services number rung off the hook for about an hour.

That was me gone. The competition is better and cheaper, and while I had been a patriotic flyer, believing that it was part of my national duty to fly SAA (plus the staff are really nice) - no longer. I guess it will be much the same with most passengers, disrupted by the strike this week or made nervous by the negative headlines and Numsa’s threats against passenger safety. You don’t play with flying and safety, and the market moves on, as I guess it did in great numbers this week.

Convenience went down; risk went up. SAA has eaten itself up. Unlike a strike at a factory or a mine, the audience or stakeholders available for disruption by labour are not static or captive in an airline strike beyond the single disrupted flight. Thereafter, you can move and my guess is we have. In droves.

The risk for SAA now is that the hard rump of its full-fare paying customers – corporates and individuals – are largely gone, and that its captive market of government employees and politicians remain.

If you look at SAA’s ticketing structure, politicians get a wad of free flights for themselves and families from SAA (or from taxpayers) while government departments get highly discounted prices. The free flights explain why Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan got a dressing down from the ANC caucus this week for his comment that SAA is not too big to fail. Who else will fly them with families for free all around the country? Perhaps a dodo.  

There’s a big ideological free-for-all happening about whether or not SAA should exist. But the people who really matter – the paying passengers – have flown the cuckoo nest.

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