South African Airways: Wikis


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South African Airways
Founded 1934 (first purchased as Union Airways by SA Government)
Focus cities Durban International Airport
Frequent flyer program Voyager
Member lounge Cycad/Baobab Lounge
Alliance Star Alliance
Fleet size 54 (6 on Order)
Destinations 37
Parent company Government of South Africa
Headquarters Kempton Park, Ekurhuleni, Gauteng, South Africa
Key people Chris Smyth (CEO)
Kaushik Patel (CFO)

South African Airways (SAA) is South Africa's flag carrier and largest domestic and international airline company, with hubs in Johannesburg and Cape Town. It is also known in Afrikaans as Suid-Afrikaanse Lugdiens (SAL), although this version of the name no longer appears on the airline's livery. It is headquartered on the grounds of OR Tambo International Airport in Kempton Park, Ekurhuleni, Gauteng.[1][2]





In 1934, Union Airways was bought by South Africa's government, and renamed South African Airways on 1 February. The first cities served were Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. The following year, also on 1 February, South African Airways took over South-West African Airways which had since 1932 been providing a weekly air-mail service between Windhoek and Kimberley.

In the 1930s SAA entered the international market with flights to Kenya and Uganda at British East Africa. The main aircraft of SAA in the 1930s was the Junkers JU-52, affectionately known as Tante-Ju. Eleven of these flew for SAA. Other types used in the 1930s included eighteen Junkers JU-86s, which served from 1937 onwards, as well as four Airspeed "Envoy" light twin airliners.

The slow growth continued during the 1940s, though the airline was effectively closed for the duration of WWII. In 1944 SAA began operating the Lockheed Lodestar to restart domestic services and by 1948 SAA was operating nineteen examples. These were withdrawn in 1955.

On November 10, 1945 SAA achieved a longtime company goal by operating a route to Europe when an Avro York landed in Bournemouth, England, after the long flight from Palmietfontein near Johannesburg. These were replaced by the DC-4 "Skymaster"s from 1946 onwards, which in turn was replaced by the Lockheed Constellation on international routes in 1950. Also of note in the post war era was the DC-3 Dakota, of which eight served with SAA, the last example being withdrawn as late as 1970.

Boeing 747-400 at London Heathrow Airport in 1997 colour scheme
Airbus A340-600 in 1997 colour scheme
Boeing 747-300 in the 1970s-1997 livery
"New" Business Class seat on display in 2006
Airbus A340-600 South African Airways

The jet age

The 1950s saw the advent of the jet age with the addition of the Boeing 707 to the airline's fleet. In 1953 SAA made aviation history when it became the first airline outside UK to operate the world's first pure jetliner, the De Havilland Comet, on lease from BOAC. In November 1957 the "Wallaby" service to Perth, Australia was added. SAA's first 707 landed in Europe in October 1960 with a nine-hour flight to Athens. Two years later, SAA's jets would allow the airline to fly nonstop from South Africa into the UK and SAA's other European destinations. Johannesburg-New York route, via Rio de Janeiro, opened on February 1969. Later in 1971, SAA added the Boeing 747-200 'Jumbo Jet' to its fleet, followed in 1976 by the long range 747-SP and the Airbus A300, and in 1983 by the 747-300 EUD.

The next few years would be marked by steady but slower growth. Many countries refused to trade economically with South Africa, and so, while many airlines were growing fast, SAA's growth rate was far behind most. Some African countries, except South Africa's neighbours, refused to let SAA use their airspace, but by then SAA had acquired a fleet of six 'Special Performance' Boeing 747 SPs, reducing the need for stopovers.

A major development for the airline during the 1970s was the opening of a route to Asia, with Boeing 747 flights to Hong Kong. In 1980, when SAA began flights to Taipei, South Africa became one of the few countries in the world to recognize the government of Republic of China in Taiwan.

Fiftieth anniversary

SAA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1984. In that year the South African government signed a treaty with Somalia to give military aid to the repressive regime of Siad Barre in exchange for an exclusive contract to service Somali air travel. This turned out to be economically nonviable since few Somalis could afford airline tickets, and due to the incessant civil disorder in the country, few people wanted to go to Somalia.

SAA's services to South America were cut back in 1985 because of lack of demand, with services to Buenos Aires stopped, but those to Rio de Janeiro continued.

Effect of apartheid

Due to international condemnation of the apartheid regime during the 1980s, SAA itself faced hostility, with its offices being attacked. SAA's London office was daubed with red paint, while in Harare, Zimbabwe, its offices were badly damaged after protesters went on the rampage.

The U.S. Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 banned all flights by South African–owned carriers including SAA. In 1987, SAA's services to Perth and Sydney in Australia were ended, in light of Australia's opposition to apartheid.[3]

On November 28 of that year, disaster struck the airline, when a 747, the Helderberg (South African Airways Flight 295) flying from Taipei to Johannesburg crashed into the Indian Ocean, near Mauritius, killing all passengers and crew.

During that year, the South African Airways Museum opened its doors to the public at Jan Smuts International Airport (which was renamed the OR Tambo International Airport in 2006.)

End of the 'pariah airline'

With the demise of apartheid, beginning in 1990, SAA was able to shake off its pariah image, restoring services to old destinations, introducing services to new ones and expanding into the rest of Africa, and into Asia.[4][5] June 1 of 1990 was also an important day for SAA, as South African companies signed a domestic air travel deregulation act. Later that year, SAA was chosen as the Best Airline to Africa by London magazine Executive Travel.

In 1991 SAA's first Airbus A320 jet arrived, and its first Boeing 747-400 jet, named Durban. The airline resumed flights to New York City's JFK International Airport for the first time since the United States imposed economic sanctions on South Africa in 1986, and South African's planes were able to fly for the first time over Egypt and Sudan.

In 1992 South African entered the Miami market (from Cape Town) by flying into Miami International Airport, and re-entered Australia. This year also saw code sharing agreements with American Airlines and Air Tanzania. That year also saw direct flights to Southeast Asia including Bangkok and Singapore.

In 1993 the airline began services to Manchester and Hamburg, and a code sharing agreement was reached with Brazil's Varig.

In 1994, a feeder service (SA Express) began flying domestically. This year saw the birth of the airline Alliance, which was a partnership between SAA, Uganda Airlines and Air Tanzania. Also South African greeted its passengers in four different languages during domestic flights: English, Zulu, Afrikaans and Sotho, while passengers on international flights were also greeted in the destination's local language. Nevertheless, this "Alliance" withered against intense competition from Kenya Airways (and affiliated Precision Air). The Tanzanian government is subsidising Air Tanzania while it disentagles the relationship with SAA.

In 1995, Lufthansa started a code sharing agreement with SAA, and SAA commissioned Herdbuoys Diefenbach Elkins to lead South African's change of image. SAA's Voyager and American Airlines' AAdvantage frequent flier clubs joined together.

1996 saw flights to Singapore discontinued, with Bangkok becoming an Asian hub for the airline, and South African Olympic athletes were carried to Atlanta aboard 747 Ndizani. SAA won Executive Travel's best airline to Africa award for the third time.


In 1997, SAA introduced its new image and livery, dropping the springbok emblem, and the old national colours of orange, white and blue. The new livery was based upon the new national flag, with a sun. The airline's name on its aircraft was changed to 'South African', with the Afrikaans name Suid-Afrikaanse Lugdiens dropped. The airline started online ticket sales and formed an alliance with SA Airlink and SA Express.

As a symbol of the new rainbow nation, one of SAA's 747-300s, named Ndizani was painted in bright colours. Now that Ndizani has been withdrawn from service, there have been calls to paint another SAA aircraft in these striking colours.

In 1998 services to Buenos Aires and São Paulo's Guarulhos Airport restored, services to Copenhagen Airport stopped, and a new airline President - Coleman Andrews. The arrival of Mr Andrews saw a very comprehensive and somewhat controversial overhaul of the airline by the American CEO, shaking up the way the airline was run. Mr Andrews was brought in by Transnet, the state-owned parent company, to remedy the problems of deserting customers, which Transnet's own market research had revealed was caused by 'failure to fly on time, unfriendly and minimally trained staff, poor food and SAA fares being 12- 25% above its competitors'. This era at SAA is covered in the book "Jetlag, SA Airways in the Andrews Era" by South African journalist Denis Beckett.

In 1999 South African and Delta Air Lines started code sharing on flights from Atlanta to South Africa. Those flights took place on South African Airways planes.

2000 saw South African arrive at Ft. Lauderdale's Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and order 21 more Boeing 737s for its domestic routes.

In 2001, South African won the Best Cargo Airline to Africa award from Air Cargo News - (even though South African is mostly a passenger airline) - and South African Airways signed a code sharing agreement with Nigeria Airways, to provide service from the United States to Lagos, using South African 747s. (This code share agreement is no longer in effect, and SAA's flights to/from the United States no longer stop in Nigeria.) The airline earned a spot on the Zagat Survey's top ten international airlines list, opened a new website and named Andre Viljoen as Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

In March 2002, under CEO Andre Viljoen, South African Airways asked Airbus Industrie to overhaul its fleet at a cost of $3.5 billion. SAA took advantage of a slump in the order books of the aircraft manufacturers (Boeing and Airbus). The entire airline industry was still staggering after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in the USA, which lead to new airplane orders either, being deferred or cancelled altogether. SAA was in a buyers market and with the demise of Swissair, which had A340-600s about to be delivered, made a huge impact on Airbus clinching the SAA deal.

In 2002 SAA ordered nine A340-600 widebodies, six A340-300s, 11 A319s and 15 A320 aircraft. Three of the A340-600 aircraft came from International Lease Finance Corp. The new Airbus A319s replaced the ageing Boeing 737-200 fleet, but the Boeing 737-800s continue in service, because SAA cancelled the A320 order before any aircraft were delivered.

In late 2002, South African Airways made a successful bid for a 49 per cent stake in Air Tanzania. This was SAA's first acquisition of a foreign airline. The merger failed in 2006 when new SAA management felt that the arrangement was an unprofitable mistake made by previous SAA managers.[6]

In March 2004 South African Airways announced its application to join Star Alliance. The alliance accepted the application in June, with SAA joining as a full member in April 2006.

In July 2004, Andre Viljoen resigned as CEO of SAA, the media speculated he resigned due to the heavy losses SAA suffered in a R6-billion hedging loss.

In August 2004, Khaya Ngqula was appointed as CEO of SAA. A new chairman, Professor Jakes Gerwel, was appointed in the same month.

In 2005, it became the first non-Saudi airline to fly a direct Hadj service to Medina in Saudi Arabia.

In July 2005, SAA started four times weekly Johannesburg-Accra-Washington, D.C. service with a Boeing 747-400. Service was increased to a daily service in July 2006, and the 747-400 was replaced by an Airbus A340-600. Also, because SAA could not obtain rights to fly passengers between Ghana and the US, the stop in Accra was replaced with a stop in Dakar. Accra will remain an SAA destination, however. In 2007, SAA retired the last of its 747-400 fleet from active SAA service.

On June 6, 2006, South African Airways' codeshare alliance with the US Airline, Delta Air Lines, was terminated. South African's participation in the Star Alliance caused tension between the airlines as it is a major competitor of Delta's SkyTeam Alliance.

In May 2007, SAA launched a restructuring which aimed to ensure that the airline became profitable. The restructuring attempted to simplify and resize the business as well as to reskill employees and improve their morale.


On April 10, 2006, SAA formally joined Star Alliance. SAA began code-share service with United Airlines. It also has a code-share with Air New Zealand, Lufthansa and many other Star Alliance members.

South African Airways is an airline partner of Skywards, the frequent flyer program for Emirates. Skywards members can earn miles for flying South African and can redeem miles for free flights. The airline also has a partnership with El Al Israel Airlines.


South African Airways destinations.      South Africa      South African Airways destinations

SAA flies to five domestic destinations and 32 international destinations in 26 countries across Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. SAA operates intercontinental routes to Buenos Aires, São Paulo, New York City, Washington, D.C., London, Frankfurt, Munich, Mumbai, Hong Kong and Perth. Most international and intercontinental flights operate from Johannesburg. The only intercontinental route from Cape Town is to London. SAA also operates numerous domestic and regional routes.

SAA, along with Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Emirates, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas and British Airways - is one of only eight airlines that fly to all six inhabited continents[7].



Airbus A340-200 South African Airways

The South African Airways fleet consists of the following aircraft as of March 2009[8]:

South African Airways Fleet
Aircraft Total Orders Passengers
Airbus A319-100 11 0 120 (25/95)
Airbus A330-200 0 6 226 (36/190) To replace Airbus A340-200
Airbus A340-200 6 0 239 (24/215) To be replaced by Airbus A330-200
Airbus A340-300 6 0 264 (38/226)
Airbus A340-600 9 0 317 (42/275)
Boeing 737-800 17 0 157 (32/125)
Boeing 747-400 2 0 290 (30/260) To be retired
Total 54 6

SAA used to name its aircraft after geographical features in South Africa, such as rivers, cities, towns and mountain ranges. However, SAA aircraft are no longer named.

In June 2007, SAA confirmed earlier speculation that the airline's restructuring plan means there will be no new aircraft purchased for an unspecified time period.[9]

The average age of South African Airways fleet was 5.0 years at March 2009[8].

In 2009 SAA got back five of its retired 747-400 fleet. These aircraft are used on the Johannesburg to Lagos and the Johannesburg to Luanda Route. This aircraft also used to operate the Luanda-Lisbon route for TAAG Angola Airlines, until TAAG could fly its own aircraft into Lisbon.[citation needed]CHUT

SAA has also announced plans to lease 6 A330-200 from AirCastle Intl. They will be the RR variant and are due for delivery in 2011.[citation needed]

Accidents and incidents


  • Junkers Ju 52, ZS-AKY, 16 June 1937. The aircraft crashed on take-off at Port Elizabeth Airport following engine failure in two engines and burnt out. All aboard escaped. This was the airline's first accident in which passengers were injured.[10]
  • Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, ZS-ASW, 5 January 1948. The aircraft overran the runway at Palmietfontein after landing deep. The undercarriage was ripped-off and the hull damaged beyond repair. There were light injuries to passengers but no fatalities.[10]
  • Douglas DC-3, ZS-DJC flight SA512 6 March 1962, vicinity Seymour, Eastern Cape, South Africa. The aircraft crashed into a mountainside after the pilot insisted on conducting flight as visual flight rules (VFR) while flying below low cloud above rising ground. The pilot and first officer were killed but passengers and cabin staff survived.[10][12]
  • Vickers Viscount 818, SA406, 13 March 1967, vicinity East London, Eastern Cape, South Africa. The Rietbok crashed into the sea 1.5 miles (2.4 km) offshore while on final approach during bad weather. No cause was found by investigators due to the inability to retrieve or photo map wreckage. All aboard were killed.[10][12]
  • Boeing 707-344C, SA228, 20 April 1968, near Windhoek, South West Africa (now Namibia). The aircraft was six weeks old. The crew used a flap retraction sequence from the 707-B series which removed flaps in larger increments than desirable for that stage of the flight, leading to a loss of lift at 600 ft above ground level. The subsequent descent went undetected by the crew, leading to impact with the ground. Casualties totalled 119 dead.[10][12]


The only successful hijacking of a SAA flight took place on 24 May 1972 when a Boeing 727 (ZS-SBE) was hijacked on route from Salisbury in Rhodesia (now known as Harare, Zimbabwe) to Johannesburg. Two Lebanese, Kamil and Yagi, took control of the aircrafted by packing dynamite sticks on the hatracks. They were armed with a pistol.

They forced the pilot, Captain Blake Flemington, to return to Salisbury where they landed and re-fuelled with 12 hostages remaining on board. They were bluffed by the captain into thinking that they were en route to the Seychelles, while he was in fact heading for Blantyre in Malawi. After landing the passengers used nightfall to go into the cockpit, where they climbed down the emergency escape rope. By the time the hijackers realized this, the captain, one passenger, and a flight steward, Dirk Nel, remained on the aircraft.

The two hijackers started fighting with each other for possession of the dynamite fuse. In the ensuing chaos, the three captives escaped, leaving the two hijackers on board. The Malawi security forces started shooting and the two surrendered.

They were jailed for two years on a charge of being in possession of an undeclared firearm on board an aircraft. After serving one year of their sentence, they were released.

  • South African Airways Flight 322, 17 June 2006 South African Flight 322, a Boeing 737-800 underwent an attempted hijacking by a 21-year-old Zimbabwean, who took a flight attendant hostage in an attempt to enter the aircraft's cockpit and divert the plane to Maputo, Mozambique. He was subdued before entering the cockpit on the flight en-route from Cape Town to Johannesburg. The pilots of SAA Flight 322 had been monitoring the incident via CCTV and the plane was turned back to Cape Town where a police task force stormed the aircraft and arrested the suspect.[13][14]

Anti-competitive practices

On 5 June 2007, it was announced that SAA paid ZAR 55 million to the South African government's Competition Commission. The penalty was imposed because of anticompetitive behaviour such as price-fixing. This fine was in addition to a ZAR 45 million fine paid by SAA on 31 May 2006 as a penalty for SAA's attempts to prevent travel agents from dealing with rival air carriers.[15]

"Kulula has once again called on government to call it a day and keep its promise...that South African taxpayers will stop filling the begging bowl for ailing state-owned businesses," Many other companies like Flitestar, SunAir and Nationwide had failed because they could not compete with state-funded SAA. "State re-nationalisation of the industry will continue to be destructive to free and fair competition." The company said it was "bizarre" that the proceeds of its income tax, fuel taxes, VAT, import duties and other government levies then were paid over to a state-owner competitor.[16]


  1. ^ "Legal Information - (EU)." South African Airways. Retrieved on 24 June 2009.
  2. ^ "Background." Ekurhuleni. 3 (3/8). Retrieved on 30 September 2009.
  3. ^ See Pirie, G.H. Aviation, apartheid and sanctions: air transport to and from South Africa, 1945–1989. GeoJournal, 22 (1990), 231–240.
  4. ^ Pirie, G.H., Southern African air transport after apartheid. Journal of Modern African Studies, 30 (1992), 341–348.
  5. ^ Pirie, G.H. ‘Africanisation’ of South Africa’s international air links, 1994–2003. Journal of Transport Geography, 14 (2006), 3–14
  6. ^ "SAA to get out of Air Tanzania 'blunder'". Business Report. February 17, 2006. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b Title=SAA Fleet|
  9. ^ "SAA announces major restructuring". MoneyWeb. June 4, 2007. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f Young, Mark D (May 2007). A Firm resolve: A History of SAA Accidents and Incidents 1934–1987. Laminar Publishing Associates, South Africa. 
  11. ^ "Civil Aircraft Register - South Africa". "ASN Aircraft accident 16-OCT-1937 Junkers W.34 ZS-AEC". 
  12. ^ a b c d e f "Plane Crash Info: Airline/Operator Sj-Sz". 
  13. ^ "Hijacking procedures top notch, says SAA". Cape Times. June 20, 2006. 
  14. ^ "South African Airlines Hijacking Update". Overseas Security Advisory Council. June 12, 2006. Retrieved 2007-11-05. 
  15. ^ "SAA pays competition fine". June 5, 2007. 
  16. ^

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