Jean-Jacques Cornish

Message to SAA: hang in there

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by Jean-Jacques Cornish

There’s a message for flat-broke South African Airways: hang in there!

It runs in parallel with Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan’s warning that the airline must clean out corruption if it hopes to survive.

And it supersedes the call by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni that that company, which has not made a profit since 2011, must go to the wall.

The latter is perfectly right in saying no bank or enterprise would get involved with SAA in its current financial state.

But Mboweni’s been repudiated by President Cyril Ramaphosa because, he says, closing the airline would necessitate immediate repayment of its R22 billion debt. This would enormously damage the fiscus.

There’s speculation that Ramaphosa’s remarks have turned his new finance minister into a lame duck: a political has-been who is allowed to say what he wants because he  is only serving his time until after next year’s election.

In fact, Mboweni might have been directed to throw a stone into the bush to see what reaction he could provoke from SAA staff and trade unions who have a veritable bottle of bitter pills to swallow if survival is the option.

These range from exposing the corruption within their ranks to accepting marginal salary increases at best.

My introductory message is based on African aviation predictions.

If SAA can survive it can pick itself up on the approaching boom in African air travel.

IATA figures show the increase in air traffic between sub-Saharan Africa and China will run at 11% over the next decade which will place it among the fastest growing routes on the planet.

Projected traffic between South Africa and China is pretty much in line with this.

China is projected to buy 7690 new aircraft by 2037 with a staggering price tag of $1,2 trillion.

This makes the contest between Airbus and Boeing  for sales to China the most interesting aviation battleground.

US President Donald Trump’s trade war with China is doing Boeing no favours  in this dogfight.

Just this week, Airbus executives are in Beijing talking about the sale of 180 Airbus A320s at price of $18 billion dollars.

If it does get to contest the skies tomorrow, SAA will face new competition.

As US voters cast their ballots in the midterm elections, the Airbus 330-800, which will be the warhorse in that battle, made its maiden flight in Toulouse.

The wide-bodied liner with a capacity of 257 passengers is powered by Rolls Royce Trent 7000 engines that are quieter than their predecessors and 14% more fuel efficient.

Air Mauritius, Air Senegal and RwandAir have firmed up their orders for the new aircraft.

The nascent Uganda Air has signed a memorandum of understanding for two A330-800s.

Nigeria that has taken an on-off approach to reinstating a national carrier could add to the competition

However, there is plenty for everyone. 

The dearth of road and rail infrastructure makes air travel between African countries –  and particularly the  movement of perishable goods – indispensable as their population grows to 1,4 billion.

Ethiopian Airlines, which has a fleet more than twice the size of SAA’s, will indubitably remain the continental giant and an example the South African carrier should emulate wherever possible.

It’s major competitors are not SAA, Kenya Airways and Egyptair but Qatar, Emirates and Turkish Airlines.

Its growth has come from a protected regulatory  framework, the cross subsidization of airport revenue and concessionary fees at Ethiopian airports.

Competitive pricing has enabled it to make the frankly substandard Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa a hub competing with Singapore, Istanbul and Dubai.

The bulk of Ethiopia Airlines’ planes are wide-bodied liners from the Boeing and Airbus range. 

The fleet is constantly updated with planes being  exchanged every six-and-a-half years.

Somehow SAA has to change its message from “ah, if only”  to becoming the Little Red Engine saying: “I think I can.”

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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.