Johannesburg - Some people, like her husband, love cars, but for Siza Mzimela there's no better sight to behold than an aircraft taking off, “especially at night”.

She finds lift-off so majestic it's no wonder she's been in aviation “for maybe 20 years now, mostly at SAA, and seven years at SA Express”.

The first-ever female chief executive at the national carrier, Mzimela has now founded her own airline - another first for a black woman.

The name Fly Blue Crane was a no-brainer: “The blue crane is the national bird of South Africa.”

The patriot adds: “We’re a South-African-based airline. Yes, we’d like to be a southern African role-player, but it makes sense to call ourselves after the national bird.”

She quit the embattled state-owned SAA in 2012 and, when she pondered the question of what to do next, “starting something fresh” was top of her agenda.

Fly Blue Crane was something fresh and it launched on September 1, 2015.

It has just taken its maiden flight to Windhoek.

“In all my years I've heard that it's a male-dominated industry... but I don't know of any black person who started an airline - never on the commercial side, at least. I wanted to try and do something different, operate in a space that people think is reserved for certain races,” she says.

It was also her passion for the continent that was behind this quantum leap in her career.

“SAA and other players have been instrumental in opening up routes throughout the continent but no one has been interested in operating the thin routes. For me that's the passion. We haven't gone (as far as) to say we'll operate Joburg-Cape Town. For me it has always been about the small towns, such as Joburg-Bloemfontein, Joburg-Kimberley... so that they also end up with services much like Joburg-Cape Town, that have a flight almost every hour.”

Servicing the fringe markets appeals to her, Mzimela says: “From a pure business point of view, you'd not want to go into an area where there's too much competition. But you also go into business in response to a need.

“There was a greater need for that. Even on the continent there's a need. Yes, there's Joburg-Harare, but one rarely says maybe Cape Town-Harare, Durban-Harare. People still have to go the long route (to their destination). But once you start a direct route, people use it to fly more, to grow business.”

She uses the phrase “grow business” a few times, almost like a mantra. Hence the alacrity to ply the Cape Town-Windhoek route as “no one from South Africa was operating this route”.

She reiterates “there is demand for this (service)”.

More good news for the fledgling airline: “Two weeks ago we got the Joburg-Maputo, then Joburg-Manzini.”

Having applied for both domestic and international licences on their launch, Mzimela says “going to the rest of the continent is still a long way off; applications take time”.

Fly Blue Crane does not, as yet, operate the long-range type aircraft. Their fleet does not do more than three hours, so for now “our focus is on southern Africa”.

The chic airline boss, virtually the only skirt at a board meeting of the cargo company, excuses herself from it to grant us an hour's audience. She says she knew at high-school level that she was destined for something great.

She thought she was going to work for the Reserve Bank, she says. But being a numbers person, with a BA in economics and statistics, she shot straight to the head office of her first employer, a bank, as a research analyst.

“Whatever I do is going to relate to money,” the high-school student had thought.

But a competition she entered, the only one in her life, won her the prize of a plane ride and a chance to go into the control tower.

The aviation bug bit deeply.

It's here where she waxes lyrical about the beauty of a plane taking off.

The industry is best suited to women, she says, as it demands a lot of multi-tasking: “Naturally, women do this best.”

It still boggles the mind why the numbers of women in the industry are so low, she says.

Fly Blue Crane, which now has a staff complement of 104, has a bias in favour of women, the boss lady confesses.

At least 30 of her employees are in their first job ever. “They're known as my kids,” she says, beaming with pride.

“I don't do a job for comfort, power, big salary,” she says, when asked why the cushy job with high perks at SAA was not enough. “The job for me must have a bit more meaning. That's why I studied economics. I always wanted to create jobs.”

These “kids” at her airline are aged 18 to 22 and, she admits, they will “spend more time training them, holding their hands a bit longer”, but she is certain it will be worthwhile in the long term.

She has no lofty ambitions to conquer Milan or New York, she says.

“If Fly Blue Crane can help Africans move as freely as possible through borders, that will be it for me.”

Sunday Independent