South African Airways have just lost a case against Nationwide Airlines, in which they are forced to pay damages for contraventions of the Competition Act. In her ruling Judge Caroline Nicolls ordered SAA to pay Nationwide damages of R104.62 million, and that the national carrier should pay interest on the sum of 10.25 percent as from the date of judgment until the date of payment.
On the one hand I am delighted by the judge’s decision, because this airline has arrogantly defied all decent business principles relating to competing with rivals on issues of quality, service and price, and regularly taunts all stakeholders by flaunting all ethical behaviours and even some laws.
But I find no consolation in the fact that South Africa’s population and taxpayers, that is you and me, need to again sponsor their poorly-conceived decisions. Not only that, but the judge’s decision has also now opened up the possibility that others will follow suit. It is outrageous that the government has bailed out South African Airways to the tune of around R30 billion in the last decade or so.
At the end of the day there is a certain pattern that emerges here relating to the culture at South African Airways. The approach and attitude towards Nationwide and their other rivals is also reflected in the way they treat their suppliers, partners and, needless to say, their customers. So many good airlines have struggled to fight SAA’s cruel monopolistic practices, and it’s time that someone with independent legal power now puts them on their place.
There have been too many humiliating scandals in this loss-making airline, including…
- Many other legal actions in local and international courts
- Failed attempts via court interdict to muzzle media reports about their operations. (In December 2015, Judge Sutherland also gave a punitive cost order against SAA for “unprofessionalism” in the management of the urgent application by three media houses to publish an internal memorandum.)
- Shutting down websites like NeverFlySAA.com created by disgruntled customers
- Service levels that are exceptionally poor
- Front-line people who are at best indifferent, at worst rude and have an attitude of "take it or leave it"
- The Voyager loyalty programme that simply doesn’t work, and is just a scam
- Embarrassing our country in international tourist markets with poor treatment of overseas tourists, and theft of passengers’ property even while on-board
- Regular drug-smuggling scandals by the staff
- And, in one case, a business-class passenger who was so seriously assaulted by a crew member that he needed to be hospitalised in Spain.
Meaningful communication from the airline is non-existent. I am even fearful that committed-but- demoralised staff from SAA will also stop paying attention to the safety and technical details in a moment of inattentive disgruntlement – leading to a catastrophe in which a plane crashes and hundreds of people lose their lives. (Many highly-experienced pilots and engineering/technical staff have already left to join rival airlines overseas.) My fears may be unfounded, of course, but I don’t have to be cold, rational and logical when I’m spending my money.
The government needs to make some serious and urgent decisions regarding the future of this business managed by mostly-incompetent people – political appointments who actually have no idea about what it means to run a profitable airline. Paradoxically, many people who work in government are resentful that they have to fly with the airline, and some just outright refuse to do so. I have vowed to never voluntarily fly with SAA, no matter how good the price appears to be.
(And, by the way, their offer is hardly ever attractive, because they get away with charging higher prices for a vastly inferior experience.)
You would be amazed at how far out of my way I go to avoid flying with South African Airways. For example, all our proposals to clients include a statement that politely requests our clients to not book us on South African Airways if at all possible. Another example: I would much rather add eight or 10 hours to my journey, and travel via another destination like Dubai or Istanbul, rather than taking a direct flight to London.
Would South Africa be a better place without SAA? Without any shadow of a doubt, we don’t need a flag-carrier, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not that, like Zimbabwe and other dictatorships, flights would simply not be available for passengers, (except those who are prepared to pay exorbitant prices.) We have other South African airlines with proven management capabilities that will pick up all their routes, and, in fact, without the unfair practices of SAA, may make even more flights available for passengers. Most of the trained and experienced staff would be absorbed by these companies, and only the extremely lazy and impossible-to- manage ones would lose their jobs. Most of all, we could save our country billions of rand in subsidies and bailouts.
Isn’t it time that the SA government closed it all down, sold the ‘planes to the highest bidder, and allowed some decent and honourable people to run the routes instead?
*Aki Kalliatakis is Managing Partner of The Leadership LaunchPad, a customer service consultancy that promotes business growth through service excellence.
Contact: Leadership LaunchPad