Could A Strike Be The End Of South African Airways?

Filed Under: South African Airways

If you’re scheduled to fly South African Airways on Friday or Saturday, well, you’re probably not anymore.

South African Airways Employees Plan Strike

South African Airways has canceled a vast majority of their domestic and international scheduled flights this Friday and Saturday, November 15-16, 2019.

This comes after an announcement of industrial action by the South African Cabin Crew Association (SACCA) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

This only impacts South African Airways “mainline” flights, and not flights operated by partner airlines, including SA Express, Mango, SA Airline, and all other codeshare partners.

The following flights from outstations to Johannesburg will operate on Friday, as employees are apparently still willing to fly home:

  • Regional flights, which will operate on Friday morning, will return from Maputo (SA147), Lusaka (SA067), Harare (SA025), Windhoek (SA073), and Accra (SA210)
  • International flights, which will operate on Friday evening, will return from Frankfurt (SA261), New York (SA204), Munich (SA265), Hong Kong (SA287), Perth (SA281), Washington (SA210) and London (SA235)

Could This Strike Put SAA Out Of Business?

South African Airways has been bleeding money for years, and hasn’t turned a profit since 2011 . Earlier this week they announced details of their radical restructuring. As part of this, the airline plans on laying off nearly 1,000 of their 5,000+ workers.

While job losses suck, the reality is that the company is so inefficient, and unless something is done, no one will have a job soon.

As a result South African Airways employees are going on strike. Not just because of the potential job losses, but also because they want a pay raise.

During recent negotiations, SAA has offered employees a 5.9% pay increase, subject to the availability of funds from lenders. Meanwhile the unions are demanding an 8% pay increase.

SAA’s acting CEO has stressed that this will only make the situation worse, and could have catastrophic results:

“The unions and all employees should be mindful of the current financial constraints the company is facing.  Wage demands have to be tested on the basis of affordability and sustainability.

The recognised unions are aware that our financial challenges are caused by a number of factors, including a severely distressed global airline industry, which has resulted in numerous airlines retrenching staff, embarking on cost-reduction programmes, implementing wage freezes, reducing operations, or even closing down.

Like other airlines, SAA is under severe financial pressure. At the moment, our costs are higher than our revenue, and the sooner we address that, the better for the immediate survival of the company.”

My Take

I get the frustration on both sides here.

The truth is that management has been letting down employees for a long time with their lack of leadership and vision, though that’s partly because the government has kept the airline in limbo as well, as the airline doesn’t have a successful path to full privatization.

Still, this really isn’t the time to strike over pay. It’s ironic to see employees gong on strike over the 5.9% pay increase being offered vs. an 8% pay increase, when up to 20% of their workforce is potentially about to be laid off.

Employees Are Calling Bluff Of Company & Government 

Ultimately what this comes down to is that employees are calling the bluff of the company and the government. On the one hand this seems outrageously greedy, at the same time I think they trust that the country won’t let the airline fail, just as they haven’t let them fail up until now.

It’s not much different than Alitalia. Their employees have turned down just about every agreement despite the company’s dire financial situation, and they’re still in business, so…

It will be interesting to see if this strike does in fact happen, if it’s extended, and what this will mean for the airline overall.

  1. With all due respect, it’s difficult for someone in the US to pass judgement on how things work in Africa. SAAs failings have nothing to do with their employees who gave given up a lot over the years to see the ANC backed management continue to run the carrier into their ground. If the staff can’t be paid appropriately (and the percentages you have quoted are irrelevant based on US standards… try looking at the cost of living increases in ZA and the devaluation of the rand) then the carrier needs to fold. Keeping SAA alive at the taxpayers expense is preventing a new carrier from starting, and impacting on the ability for Comair, Airlink and the country’s profitable airlines to grow.

  2. One thing to remember is that inflation in South Africa is about 5% a year so either a 5.9% or 8% pay increase is not as substantial as it would be in other countries.
    Hopefully they can turn it around after all these changes though.

  3. Starting to think that the government should finally just let them die and put them out of their misery altogether. For their regional network, there are plenty of other domestic competitors that can step in to fill the void. For their longhaul network, they have very few routes where they are not already facing direct competition (I think maybe IAD is the only one). Foreign carriers can ramp up capacity pretty easily. Over time, Comair can potentially enter the longhaul market so that South Africans are not completely reliant upon foreign carrier (although I’m not sure long haul flying would be permitted in their licensing arrangement with BA…)

  4. You dont know how it works down there in africa. The goverment will never let saa fall dawn. Its a big self service store for then. I someone need a position he gets it at Saa.
    It doesent matter how much money they loose. The state is paying the bill

  5. Father is scheduled to fly SAA IAD-JNB return this weekend. Are they offering to re-book on *A or other carriers? Really a PITA as this adds gobs of travel time vs direct.

  6. Update FWIW: They suggested Ethiopian and Lufthansa (no surprise) but they didn’t object when I insisted on Qatar as that got him there when we needed, and while I’m sure it’s safe, I wasn’t a huge fan of him flying Ethiopian…

  7. It’s about time the government lets go of SAA. Thabo Mbeki was correct about the privatisation of this entity years ago. The private sector shoukd take over and goverment really needs to focus on social service delivery, Universal Health Coverage is upon us.

  8. Sad news. I’m a fan of SAA having flown JNB GRU many times. I really enjoy the 330 business class pictured above with the brown seats. Tremendous amount of space, especially with the companion seat unoccupied, which is most of the time. Decent food and good wine.

  9. Just another state enterprise that has failed under the ANC government. Eskom, the Railways and now the national airline. Cronyism and corruption is so rife down there I’m frankly amazed the airports still function

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