Solly Moeng: SAA can try for rescue, but its reputation has long crossed the line

There are many stories of regional and national airlines that have ceased to exist, all over the world and over the years.

Some were international flag carriers and others simply carried national colours between domestic destinations. Many of them have left good memories in the hearts and minds of their regular customers, others perhaps not.

My all-time favourite was Canadian Airlines International - also known ‘the Canadian’ - which had been founded in 1987 and operated until January 2001. I still have a model of one of their aeroplanes in my home that I continue to cherish for sentimental reasons. I travelled quite regularly on Canadian Airlines during my years in Canada and I always had great experiences flying with them. I felt safe and the in-flight service was always friendly, professional, and up to standard.

But I concede that my enduring attachment to Canadian Airlines is purely subjective and sentimental, based on the many times I flew from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport or the Toronto Island Airport to other parts of the country and back; happy and safe. Never once did I have an unpleasant experience on any of their flights. And I do not recall any scandals involving political involvement in its operations or the siphoning of company funds by directors. Like many regular travellers on ‘the Canadian’, I was saddened when the announcement was made that the airline would cease operations, all for operational reasons - despite it being a relatively young airline, its demise marked the end of an era for many.

The main reason for the Canadian’s demise was the 1991 slump in the airline industry and, later, the effects of the Asian economic downtown which led to a decrease in its air traffic. It had begun to focus much of its investments in the hope that the transpacific airline traffic would grow exponentially. It did not; and it pulled the Canadian down.

Reputation revival    

There is little doubt in my mind that were ‘the Canadian’ to be revived, it would face very little customer resistance because it went down with a relatively clean reputational balance from a customer facing perspective.

But it is unclear, here at home, if our South African Airways can claim healthy levels of reputational credit to sustain its name in the hearts and minds of those of its travellers were it to go down.

Chances are that those of its travellers who are mindful of the many taxpayer bailouts SAA has benefitted from over the years, with no positive returns, as well as the arrogant and possibly even criminal conduct of certain political deployees who have been parachuted into its Airways Park Head Quarters, will have very little sympathy for the airline were it to perish.

To them, SAA as currently constituted has become more of a burden to the taxpayer than a positive contributor to the fiscus.

Those who have benefited from SAA’s largesse through political connections or jobs protected by unmovable trade union activism, against all corporate governance reason, will feel the loss. But investors and credit rating agencies are more likely to stand with the former than with the latter.  

Buckets of trust

South African Airways sheds buckets of traveller trust each time it cancels scheduled flights and returns with a begging bowl for more bailouts. It doesn’t help that certain key people alleged to have been responsible for its operational and reputational demise either claim to be too broke to travel or too ill to attend when they may be called to account (or, for that matter, given the opportunity to defend themselves).

All indications are that South African Airways has long crossed the line and squandered the little it could preserve of a once splendid reputation. As a result, there seems to be little choice but for this airline to perish in order for a better one to emerge from its ashes. The new airline can also be a national flag carrier, but it doesn’t have to be wholly owned by the state. It must also be run by experienced airline professionals who will have the space to make business decisions that are good for the airline and its customers without fearing political backlash.

Those who fear that an airline driven purely by the profit motive would neglect unprofitable regional routes that would be cut-off from the country’s main metropoles would be right to worry, but there should be ways for regional airlines to receive some form of state assistance to develop remote routes that have potential to grow over time, while emphasis remains on a free-market approach and a gradual state withdrawal as the routes develop to attract sufficient levels of competition.      

South African Airways, like every other major state-owned entity/ enterprise in South Africa, finds itself in its current state because it has massively suffered the brunt of debilitating political interference in its operations. It cannot recover, financially or reputationally, while nothing changes in the way it is run. The trade unions who continue to behave unreasonably must be deprived of the licence they believe they hold to keep making demands when everyone else must keep dipping deeper into increasingly perforated pockets to keep things going.

There is no doubt that South African towns and cities need transport and airline connectivity; and that the country’s leisure and business tourism sectors cannot grow substantially without adequate, regular, airlift; but that airlift doesn’t have to come from a state-owned airline that is managed by political deployees who spend too much time looking over their shoulders, fearing the wrath of politicians who have never in their lives run businesses.

Until much-needed changes are undertaken, it is hard to see how South African Airways can recover its previous reputational glory.

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.