South Africa seeks a new flag carrier after pandemic forces collapse of state airline

An ideal replacement for South African Airways would have both public and private owners and be able to make a profit, government says

FILE PHOTO: A South African Airways (SAA) plane is towed at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, January 18, 2020. Picture taken January 18, 2020. REUTERS/Rogan Ward/File Photo
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South Africa is seeking to create a new thriving national airline out of the ashes of its current state-owned carrier, which is technically insolvent and on the brink of being placed in liquidation by administrators.

An ideal replacement for South African Airways (SAA) would have both public and private owners, maintain the country’s trade connections and make a profit, the department of public enterprises said in a statement on Friday. The plan has the backing of SAA’s near 5,000-strong workforce, the ministry said, without mentioning the business-rescue team that has been running the airline since December.

“The old SAA is dead, there is no doubt about that,” public enterprises Minister, Pravin Gordhan, said. “But what will take its place may be some or all of the old SAA and maybe some other airlines too.”

SAA’s administrators, led by Les Matuson and Siviwe Dongwana, were working on a recovery plan for the loss-making carrier before the Covid-19 crisis forced the grounding of all aircraft. They began the process of liquidating the airline last month after the government refused to provide a bailout package and have asked all employees to agree to severance packages.

That offer remains on the table, a spokeswoman for the administrators said when asked to comment on the DPE’s statement. Labour groups have yet to sign up to any deal and two of the biggest have approached the Labour Court to have the retrenchment notices deemed illegal, according to the News24 website.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Cabin Crew Association argue that as the business-rescue practitioners have not submitted their recovery plan for SAA, widespread job cuts are inappropriate, according to News24.

South Africa’s whole aviation industry has been plunged into crisis by the coronavirus pandemic. SA Express, part of the wider SAA group, has been placed in provisional liquidation, while low-cost operator Comair said on Thursday it is selling assets and is in talks with lenders to shore up a precarious financial position.

FlySafair, another budget carrier, is calling for the state to waive fees while planes are unable to fly to help the industry shore up cash reserves. South Africa is operating a phased reopening of the economy after imposing a strict lockdown to contain the coronavirus, but the resumption of domestic air travel is expected to be far down the agenda.

Mr Gordhan did not give details on how a new SAA could be created, calling it a “complex issue”. He praised the current version’s efforts of transporting medical supplies and repatriating citizens stranded by the coronavirus, saying South Africa needs “a national flag carrier that is a source of pride”.