Cape Town - In a well-meaning attempt to drum up more business for our successful aerospace companies, SAA recently cancelled plans to order new wide-bodied planes for its long-haul routes until it included reciprocal orders for parts to be made in this country.
But it became clear this week that to stem huge losses on all its international and some domestic routes, our national carrier cannot afford to lose time in acquiring the new aircraft.
The high cost of jet fuel combined with the need to reduce pollution has caused competitors on international routes and Comair on domestic routes to replace their older gas-guzzling planes with more economical ones.
SAA explained this situation to the parliamentary portfolio committee on public enterprises , together with the fact that the fall in the rand is a further handicap as many of its expenses have to be paid in US dollars. Without this factor, it would have made a small profit this year.
One of its disadvantages, as a state-owned airline, is that it is compelled to retain some of its worst loss-making routes, such as that to Beijing, for political reasons.
Many Cape Town business people, for instance, fly to China or India with Emirates by way of Dubai – because of the greater comfort and convenience of travelling in the newest aircraft – rather than with SAA in an older plane by way of Joburg.
SAA is also asking Airbus to speed up delivery of its new regional fleet of A 320s. Two have arrived, with 18 more to come.
Back to its roots
SAA is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year and is returning to its roots by planning to enlarge its route network in Africa. Increasing prosperity and political stability in a number of countries have created an environment for business travel, and there are also signs that leisure travel is starting to grow.
In the early days, SAA only flew domestic routes but in 1937 it started its first regional service between Joburg and Lusaka, with stops at Pietersburg (now Polokwane), Bulawayo and Livingstone.
This was later extended to Nairobi and Kisumu.
When World War II broke out in 1939, a section of SAA became a defence wing controlled by the Department of Defence, which took over its fleet of Junkers used on domestic flights and 22 percent of its staff.
In May 1940 the entire airline became a military unit, with all commercial flights suspended. But in December that year two commercial flights were reintroduced to neighbouring countries.
It became a commercial operation again at the end of 1944 and started its first intercontinental route – to Bournemouth in the UK – in November 1945. The flights started in Palmietfontein and were routed by way of Nairobi, Khartoum, Cairo and Castel-Benito.
SAA was one of the 44 founding members of the International Air Transport Association in 1945. Five years later, when a domestic route network was more developed, it introduced Douglas DC4 aircraft into its fleet and operated a service between Joburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, with stops in Kimberley, Bloemfontein and George.
Jan Smuts Airport (now OR Tambo International) opened in April 1952 and in October of the following year, SAA became the first non-British airline to operate a jet aircraft from Joburg to London.
In 1976, the first step towards making flights between London and Joburg accessible to the mass market – leading to the demise of the weekly mailship service between Southampton and Cape Town – was taken with the introduction of Boeing 747s on the route.
Between the early 1960s and the coming to power of South Africa’s first democratically elected government, many African countries denied SAA the right to enter or fly over their air space. This forced its aircraft to make a long detour over the sea, to avoid flying over the bulge of West Africa, but it flew to many European countries.
Since then, though, it has withdrawn from most of its former European destinations, partly because the new government did not recapitalise it to renew its ageing fleet, so making its services uncompetitive. Although SAA has been bailed out on several occasions, this was mainly to rescue it from difficulties caused by bad business decisions.
It still flies from Joburg to the US, London, Germany and its partners in the BRICS (Brazil, India, China, Russia) group but, apart from this, SAA is gradually increasing the number of its destinations in sub-Saharan Africa.
This region is attracting additional airlines, and more business and leisure travel, as it becomes more prosperous. - Weekend Argus