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Opinionista

The inconvenient truth about SAA’s route retreat  

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Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

In a strange twist, SAA’s business rescue highlights how important the state-owned airline is to regional travellers. The effects of the airline’s route cancellations are particularly painful to travellers looking to make a quick trip to West Africa.

Booking a flight from Johannesburg to Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire requires a lot of patience, deep pockets and a strong appetite for several connecting flights. It is not an easy feat, and there are several reasons for this.

First, there are no direct flights to Abidjan. You can fly via all manner of intricate routes, which is out of the question for most travellers. Or you can slog it out through a multiple-stops flight via three countries, which will eventually land you at the desired destination.

It is a pitiful affair, made worse by the fact South African Airways (SAA) has shut down its Johannesburg to Abidjan – via Accra, Ghana – route. This has left travellers scrambling for alternatives. So far, the alternatives are not measuring up to SAA’s offering to Abidjan. That can be deduced from anecdotal accounts of travellers seeking a convenient route to the Ivorian economic capital city.

But this is not a shameless plug for the flagship carrier. It is merely an illustration of how important SAA is in a regional context. It also highlights the consequences for end-users of an institution’s near-collapse. Furthermore, it represents a missed opportunity for the national carrier to solidify its place as a formidable player in the West African market.

As SAA institutes a wide-ranging cost-cutting exercise and streamlines its operations to the bare bone, market sentiment is shifting and passenger goodwill is waning. The state-owned airline has always positioned itself as the carrier of choice to bespoke destinations on the continent, both inbound and outbound.

However, years of indecision, administrative decline, leadership instability and everything in between have finally caught up with the carrier. SAA is in a battle for survival at a time when the continent’s aviation market is picking up pace. It is a case of hard luck and self-inflicted misery.

In its last-published annual report, for the year ended 31 March 2017, SAA noted that “strengthening government relations across the continent, and globally, is key to our business. Stakeholder relations played a pivotal role in building relations… with governments in West Africa in support of network initiatives… to strengthen SAA’s footprint in the region.

“SAA took the opportunity to build on existing good relations with the Ghanaian government and stakeholders during the first anniversary of the Accra-Washington route, one of the most profitable routes in our network.”

Interestingly, SAA has opted to retain the Accra-Washington route amid its business rescue process.

South Africa’s fortunes are inextricably linked to the rest of the continent – SAA recognised this. In its entirety, the region has much going for it: young populations, growing economies – albeit from a low base – and a healthy appetite to do business among peers.

Low base or not, though, there is robust economic activity. And such activity correlates with growing affluence. That is excellent news for travel and tourism. The market on the continent is not as saturated as Asia or Europe. In addition, the continent has been identified as the next growth frontier for aviation. 

The appetite to do more intra-continental business or trade is embodied in the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, whose secretariat resides in Ghana.

Ghana is, of course, located in West Africa, a region with a cumulative population of slightly more than 400 million people. That is equivalent to almost 6% of the world’s total population. West Africa is also home to the continent’s largest economy.

The Ghanaian economy is projected to grow by 6.8%, according to the World Bank’s latest estimates. In 2019, as a collective, West African economies grew 3.9%. 

SAA had every reason to eye West Africa as a growth market. But the airline is living out the consequences of years of mismanagement, while its competitors capitalised on their gains.

It will be curious to see how the business rescue practitioners navigate their way through this difficult and complicated route and network maze. In the meantime, good luck booking a flight to Abidjan. BM

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