I had no support from SAA, says ex pilot after winning defamation case

Cape Town - Retired South African Airways (SAA) pilot John Harty told Fin24 on Thursday he is relieved to have won a defamation case he brought against the SA Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu) and two of its officials and now wants to get on with his life and his career.

Harty, a former chair of the SAA Pilots’ Association, has 39 years' experience and retired from SAA earlier this year when he turned 63.

The Gauteng High Court issued a default judgment in Harty's favour on December 15, awarding him R450 000 in damages plus interest. The two Satawu officials and the union must also pay Harty's legal costs. The court action was not opposed.

Harty told Fin24 that about a year ago he was suddenly contacted by the Hawks and questioned about allegations made by Satawu. These included allegations that Harty and fellow SAA pilots were plotting to bring down a plane piloted by a black pilot.

Harty pointed out that the union started making these false allegations about a week after a vote of no confidence was brought by 457 out of 472 SAA pilots against the airline's chairperson Dudu Myeni and the non-executive directors of the board. The vote of no confidence was obtained at a special general meeting at SAA headquarters in Kempton Park in November 2015.

READ: Pilots enter vote of no confidence in SAA board

Harty, then the chair of the SAA Pilots Association, said in a statement at the time that the vote of no confidence was prefaced by a discussion on, among other things, the financial situation at SAA and the impact of certain statements made by the chair on the authority of the captain of an aircraft.

In September 2015 Myeni told Parliament she blames pilots’ salaries for SAA’s financial problems. This inspired Harty to claim in an open letter that even if SAA pilots flew for free, the airline would still not make a profit.

READ: Gordhan approves R5bn guarantee for SAA

A second allegation made by Satawu was that an aircraft on its way from Hong Kong to Johannesburg was diverted to Durban to drop off some of Harty's family members.

"This was utter nonsense. No aircraft was ever diverted in such a way, yet the union refused to retract this allegation made on its social media platforms," Harty told Fin24.

A third allegation made by the union was that a flight from Johannesburg to Hong Kong was made to fly via Durban due to high temperatures in Johannesburg, thus increasing the crew's working hours and, according to the union, putting passengers at risk. Harty said there was no such thing.

He pointed out to Fin24 that SAA obviously did not think there was any substance in these allegations as he was never taken off duty nor interviewed by anyone at SAA about them. None of his fellow pilots were ever interviewed about it by SAA either.

Yet, Satawu continued to publish the false allegations on its website and on social media and referring to it in radio interviews, even claiming Harty should be tried for treason.

"All these claims were untrue," emphasised Harty. "I have 39 years with SAA and an unblemished record. Then suddenly these allegations started after the vote of no confidence against the chair." When the union refused to retract what he calls "outrageous statements" and remove them from social media and its website, Harty turned to the court.

"My case shows that one must be careful and not say things or publish them on social media just to defame someone. You will not get away with that. The court has now ordered the union and the officials to remove those false allegations from its website and social media," said Harty.

"Throughout this saga I have had no support from SAA management at all. That is quite disappointing to me. In my opinion SAA needs a strong board and executive leadership. Although SAA now has a new board, it still has the same chair. I know SAA is looking for a new CEO and hopefully they can find someone to do the job."

Harty said although he is now retired from SAA he is still allowed to fly and will be looking for other opportunities.

Fin24 contacted Satawu for comment, but has not received any feedback by the time of publication.

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