Chairperson of the SAA Pilots' Association says action must be taken to improve leadership at the 80-year-old airline. File Photo: IOL
CAPE TOWN – South African Airways’ pilots are prepared to embark on a strike for the first time unless action is taken to address the leadership challenges at the airline, chairperson of the SAA Pilots' Association (Saapa) Captain Grant Back said on Thursday.

The debt-ridden airline this year secured a R5.5 billion bail-out from the National Treasury to continue functioning and said it would need another R21.7bn in total just to break even by 2020/21.

SAA’s chief risk and compliance officer, Vusi Pikoli, told Parliament's Public Enterprises Parliamentary Portfolio Committee last week that SAA was reopening corruption investigations and that the National Prosecuting Authority would be tasked to investigate nine forensic reports.

In June, Saapa did an independent survey of its members and also asked each pilot for their view on the appropriate action necessary to ensure a financial turnaround, said Back.

SAA had responded that Saapa’s threats to strike were causing anxiety and “incessant assaults on the brand.”

Tlali Tlali, the airline's public relations person, did not respond to Business Report's questions at the time of going to press on Thursday.

Back said the survey results showed that 91 percent of pilots said operations management at the airline was “poor” to “extremely poor”.

About 96 percent were in favour of taking a “proactive stand” to force change at the airline, while 91 percent were in favour of engaging in protected industrial action.

“Indeed, if such a strike is embarked upon, it would be for the first time in SAA’s 80-year history,” Back said.

“The pilots of SAA and the leadership of Saapa cannot allow SAA to continue as if it is business as usual. Our numerous engagements with the company have not yielded outcomes that give us confidence in the future of the airline,” he said.

He said the skills deficit needed to be addressed with urgency.

“The vast majority of recent appointments are in an ‘acting’ capacity, reminiscent of the Dudu Myeni era, where appointments were made based on allegiances instead of skills and experience. In the last 18 months two expensive organisational designs were carried out and yet nothing has been implemented,” he said.

“SAA management and the board have failed repeatedly to take any of a multitude of promised actions,” Back said.