South African Airways is back — sort of

26 Aug 2021
Blog

The much- and long-troubled African national flag carrier is clawing its way back into the skies next month. But for now, only on a very limited basis.

On Sept. 23, if all goes as planned, Africans in a handful of countries will look up and see something in the air they haven’t seen in nearly two years — an airliner belonging to South African Airways.

South Africa’s state-owned national flag carrier, long bedeviled by bad management, massive debt and new competitors, was kept afloat by massive government bailouts — at the expense of political meddling in its operations.

The Covid-19 pandemic finally pushed South African into insolvency. They haven’t flown since Dec. 2019. Eighty percent of the airline’s workforce lost their jobs.

Fast-forward to 2021. SAA is set to return to the skies in a little under a month. However, it will be flying only to six destinations — and only within Africa. No flights to Europe or the States.

I’m sentimental about this airline. The first time I set foot in Africa, it was from a South African Airways flight from Washington-Dulles to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Almost every trip I’ve ever made to Africa since has been aboard one of SAA’s long-range Airbus A340 jumbo jets.

South African’s collapse wasn’t just a humiliation for its home country. It was a major loss to African air travel, especially West Africa.

SAA had been using countries like Ghana and Nigeria for refueling stops on its long transcontinental flights to and from South Africa. That enabled it to serve as a de facto international airline for West Africa, which had — and still has — no international airline of its own.

These days, that void is filled mainly by European, Middle Eastern and two US-based airlines, Delta and United. The big difference between then, when SAA was flying trans-Atlantic routes, and now, is time.

Africa’s aviation giant, Ethiopian Airlines, can fly you to just about anywhere on the continent from Dulles. But you’ll have to stop first at their hub airport in Addis Ababa. What was a 10- or 11-hour non-stop flight fro Dulles or JFK might now take 20 hours or more.

And that can mean doubling what used to be a 10-hour flight. Or more than double.

Delta and United offer non-stops to Accra from JFK and Dulles, respectively. But if you want a non-stop flight to West Africa on an African airline, you’re out of luck.

Will South African Airways ever return to US, European or Asian airports? So far, that looks doubtful. Its long-range A340 jumbo jets are old four-engine gas guzzlers. Even before the pandemic, SAA was trying to get rid of them — and even then, nobody wanted them.

For now, it looks as if South African Airways is destined to spend whatever future it has as a regional air carrier within Africa — and even that market grows ever more crowded with competing wings.

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