South Africa’s first A350; a long shot gamble to save the airline?

A few months ago South African, not unused to scandals from years of government interference and allegations of corruption, had no pilots capable of flying the soon to be delivered aircraft. No qualifiable pilots for A359’s.

The airline is in a constant state of financial crisis lurching from one state bailout to another, unable to bring any real cost control to daily operations.

In an effort to try and rein in costs the government agreed to allow the airline to lease 4 A359’s, to simultaneously cut the costs of long haul flying and raise the standards of the airlines product to make it more attractive to passengers.

The first is now about to enter service.

It’s a 1.3 year old example originally intended for LATAM, operated by Hainan airlines whose financial situation continues its decline. They were keen to off load the aircraft and South African took it on when it went to storage in October. After a repaint in Singapore it’s finally arrived. It’ll become ZS-SDC before entering service.

A second ex-Hainan aircraft is also due in November and two more, sub leased from Air Mauritius, will be delivered new direct from Toulouse in South African colours this month.

With the Southern Summer imminent and the busy Christmas period ahead its hoped to have them all operational by the first week of December.

Fitted with 339 seats, 30 are full business class with 309 economy. The first six rows have extra leg room seats.

A340-600’s cost far more to operate

The aircraft are expected to cut 25-30% from the cost of running the A340-600’s the airline has operated for the last few years.

The question is, will it really make a difference to the way the airline is managed? It’s the inability to control costs everywhere that has failed. Leasing fees on the A359’s alone are far higher than those on the A340-600s of which it has six still in service, three are leased three owned.

And it does nothing to address the rest of the fleet of A343’s which are also expensive to operate and elderly. The problem is the airline needs aircraft with range because of geographical location at the tip of Africa.

The A359’s might address the issue of perception for customers whose view of South African is old tired aircraft. The big European airlines like Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways all fly new generation aircraft on the routes to Cape Town & Johannesburg now. It’s crucial the A359’s offer at least some competition to their offering.

Nobody is saying what will happen when the 3 year leases are up. Would it simply not be best to order it’s own aircraft on lease now for the future?

South African could so easily be another Ethiopian if it had the right managers, the discipline and the government would let it get on and do what’s necessary.

Yet inefficiency leads to bailouts which create continuous interference that lead to inefficiency that leads to more bailouts and more interference. It’s an endless cycle that someone needs to be prepared to break.

The airline needs to be let go, to run itself commercially. But South Africa’s governments are too scared of loosing a strategic national asset in the airlines global connectivity if lack of commercial viability kills it off.

Even if it did fail, the market would drive a new airline into the space because one is needed. State controlled airlines never succeed, it’s too specialised a business.