The Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) and the South African Airways (SAA) businesses rescue practitioners (BRPs) have been very vocal recently in their criticism of the pilots of SAA and the SAA Pilots’ Association (Saapa).
It is not surprising that the DPE and the BRPs have been silent on the [high court] judgment [handed down on May 27, 2020] that DPE-appointed former SAA chair Dudu Myeni was, in the words of Judge Ronel Tolmay: “… a director gone rogue, [who] did not have the slightest consideration for her fiduciary duty to SAA”.
Compounding their complicity in not holding Myeni to account, neither the DPE nor the BRPs Siviwe Dongwana and Les Matuson have made any public statement about the looting and corruption at SAA and SAA Technical that was not only identified in seven SAA forensic reports but has now been exposed at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into allegations of state capture.
The BRPs are compelled by Section 141 of the Companies Act to recover the misappropriated assets of SAA, and investigate and rectify voidable transactions. Further, they have not taken the necessary steps to rectify matters regarding Myeni’s failure to perform her material obligations relating to the company.
Instead, the DPE and the BRPs are painting the pilots as the villains and attempting to blame them for the airline’s lamentable situation.
SAA signed the agreement, now says it is unlawful
At the heart of their criticism is the pilots’ regulation agreement (RA), which they say – without proof – is unlawful.
While this agreement between SAA and Saapa has been in existence since 1988, the latest version was signed in early 2014. The RA covers, protects and sets the terms and conditions of all pilots in SAA, regardless of race or gender – and to pretend that this is an apartheid-era agreement is illogical and as fallacious as claiming that any agreement or legislation from before 1994 only entrenches the rights of a select few. This disingenuous claim is a further attempt by the DPE to distract from its own failings and contribution to SAA’s demise.
SAA had many profitable years from the time the agreement came into effect in 1988, most notably from 2009 to 2011, until Myeni’s appointment by the DPE.
Read: How did an outsider get to call the shots on Eskom? (Oct 2020)
Blaming the RA for SAA’s lack of profitability and financial distress cannot be, and is not, correct.
Seniority system a crucial aviation safety component
One of the SAA and DPE’s chief complaints is the seniority system, a system that is used in almost all airlines in the world and is a crucial safety component in protecting pilots and allowing them to make decisions in the best interests of safety at all times – even when this conflicts with the commercial interests of the airline.
In essence, if there are 1 000 pilots in an airline and a new pilot joins, that pilot will become number 1 001. You climb the seniority system when an airline expands, and when pilots retire.
This system is accepted by pilots throughout the world as the fairest system and regulates most aspects of a pilot’s career at the airline.
All pilots are required to meet the same high standards of competence in an airline. Without a seniority system, pilots could be chosen for promotion because they have friends in management – or could be punished and kept out of promotion for taking safe decisions that result in increased costs to the airline.
The DPE claims that this system is unlawful because it holds back transformation and does not allow for the acceleration and promotion of pilots from the designated groups as defined in the Employment Equity Act.
What the DPE fails to mention is that it is not the seniority system that has not accelerated the advancement of designated group pilots, it is the fact that the airline has shrunk to a shadow of its former self as a result of the mismanagement and dereliction of oversight over its affairs by the board and the DPE themselves.
From 2000 to 2009, SAA employed 812 pilots. Over the last 11 years this was reduced to just 625 before business rescue, and this will shortly be cut to 88 pilot positions.
It is the very same shareholder and management who shrunk and mismanaged SAA that are now trying to blame the pilots for the catastrophic effects this will have on representivity of designated group pilots on the flight deck of aircraft in South Africa.
The airline has, for several years, and with Saapa’s concurrence, employed only designated group pilots as new entry pilots.
This was done irrespective of whether or not there were more qualified and experienced white pilots who had applied.
If the airline had expanded by as little as 3% a year, the designated group pilots’ progress would have been accelerated. Instead of expanding SAA, the shareholder has chosen to expand Mango, a subsidiary of SAA, to the detriment of SAA.
There are very few designated group pilots at Mango, partly due to SAA hiring the majority of designated group pilots in the industry.
SAA is the most transformed airline in the country at pilot level, at one stage employing 85% of all holders of an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) licence from the designated groups.
It must also be recognised that it is SAA that employs pilots and is responsible for the demographic composition of the pilot group, not Saapa.
The cost of training a pilot
Saapa acknowledges that the availability of designated group pilots has been a challenge for the industry. This is as a result of the enormous cost, almost R1 million per pilot, in order for someone to qualify as an airline transport pilot, and even then, that pilot does not yet have the skills and experience to take the controls of a large, high performance jet transport aircraft.
It is not difficult to see that the availability of designated group pilots is a major impediment to transformation of the industry and definitely not one that can be blamed on Saapa. At one stage SAA ran a cadet pilot programme that greatly assisted in the talent pipeline of designated group pilots, but this scheme was stopped due to a lack of funding – again caused by the mismanagement of SAA.
The Transport Seta, or Teta, has poured over R140 million into pilot training but has been able to produce fewer than 30 ATP licence holders for that significant investment.
Combined with the fact that the South African Air Force is no longer capable of producing a significant quantity of pilots, partly due to defence funds being spent on the corrupt Arms Deal, this has left South Africa without a significant pool of qualified and experienced airline transport pilots from the designated groups.
The lack of transformation in the country and at SAA cannot be levelled at the pilots. SAA does the hiring, and the government should have been doing more to train and develop designated group pilots at grassroots level and ensure their funds were correctly and appropriately spent.
Pilots are a high profile group and are, due to SAA’s hiring policies and the low availability of suitably qualified designated group pilots, still majority white males. It is all too easy to attack SAA pilots on this aspect and for them to be used as scapegoats.
Myeni’s moves still in play
Questions should be asked of the DPE and the BRPs as to why they are echoing and repeating the unfounded attacks on SAA’s pilots first flighted by the notorious and delinquent Myeni – a distraction that Myeni attempted while she was in fact bankrupting the airline.
She did absolutely nothing to expand SAA and improve representivity among the pilot group, and the DPE, which had appointed her, ignored the fact that she was running SAA into the ground.
Were it not for Saapa and the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) which, at a cost of millions of rands, did the DPE’s work and had her declared a ‘delinquent director’, Myeni would probably still be destructively at the helm of SAA.
The final complaint about the RA being ‘evergreen’ and that it does not have a termination date is spurious and irrelevant. SAA and Saapa are entitled to table items for negotiation twice a year, and have done so every year.
Saapa has agreed over the years to make multiple changes to the agreement, and amended the agreement in 2009 to incorporate changes that resulted in R160 million worth of verified, audited and ongoing annual concessions.
It is not only possible to amend the agreement despite the fact that it does not have a termination date, but it must be noted that SAA has tabled several significant demands recently, most of which have been accepted by Saapa.
SAA and the DPE have treated their pilots – including pilots from the designated groups – and other employees with complete disdain.
All our pilots joined the airline to fulfil a lifelong ambition to fly for the national carrier. Others are pilots who have given their entire careers in dedication to the service of SAA. All their dreams have been shattered.
Grant Back is chair of Saapa.