SAA: Revamping continental trade, tourism through Nigerian ties

South African Airways (SAA) has had its fair share of turbulence that often tests the souls of world airlines. SAA, being one of the leading foreign carriers on the Nigerian route, did weather the storm and now steadily climbing the altitude of its erstwhile continental dominance.
PHOTO: SAA jetliners

PHOTO: SA Airlines
After its survival hurdles and complete overhaul of operations, the South African national carrier, South African Airways, is strategically recreating intra-African connectivity. Coming on board is a new window of opportunities for Nigerian business and tourism communities, WOLE OYEBADE reports.

South African Airways (SAA) has had its fair share of turbulence that often tests the souls of world airlines. SAA, being one of the leading foreign carriers on the Nigerian route, did weather the storm and now steadily climbing the altitude of its erstwhile continental dominance.
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In Nigeria too, things are beginning to look up for bilateral trade relations with South Africa. Specifically, the once vibrant pan-African two-way camaraderie is returning to the business and tourism communities – especially after months of visa delays, rejections, and bitter row.

Currently attracting patronage between the two countries is the taste of “New SAA” on offer, the reopening of gateways to old regional and international destinations, aircraft acquisition for fleet capacity, and more-friendly visa policies for the Nigerian trade and tourism partners heading to the South.

89 years and still counting
South African Airways began operations on February 1, 1934. The revered African airline served regional destinations between Johannesburg and six African destinations – Accra, Kinshasa, Harare, Lusaka, Lagos, Mauritius, and two domestic routes from Johannesburg to Cape Town and Durban.

In its decades of donning the international skyline, South African Airways served over 34 destinations from its hubs in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban before entering the voluntary business rescue plan in 2019.

The flag carrier had been recording significant losses for years, which worsened at the dawn of the pandemic. In 2020, with travel at the lowest it had ever been, SAA could not get more funding from the government, therefore, halted all its flights.
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In 2021, SAA came out of business rescue and restarted operations, but flights to many of its previous destinations, including Nairobi, Lilongwe, Blantyre, Victoria Falls, Maputo, and Entebbe, were not resumed. As a result, the International Air Services Council (IASC) canceled some of the airline’s flight frequencies as they were not being used.

SAA Interim CEO, Professor John Lamola, explained that rigorous planning preceded the resumption of flights, and the flag carrier had to restructure.

One of its focus areas was the promotion of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), an agreement that would establish a free trade area across the African continent. It has been signed by 44 States, including Nigeria.

Lamola said: “We are excited, as SAA, to lay the groundwork for the relaunch of our first international route since coming out of business rescue and since the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. We will announce the new route in the coming few weeks, and we will open commercial marketing and sales for it,” Lamola said.

Country Manager, SAA Nigeria, Kemi Leke-Bamtefa, added that the Nigerian route, specifically Lagos, remains very strategic to SAA and the connectivity of the African countries.

Leke-Bamtefa said that the good relationship between the two countries is historical, and has effectively been sustained on the wings of SAA.

She said: “We are talking about 29 years of the diplomatic and bilateral relationship between Nigeria and South Africa, out of the 89 years that SAA has been in operation. For us, that is a landmark and we have been forging on in promoting the two countries, both for business and tourism.

“We are talking of the two economic powerhouses on the continent, coupled with their rich diversity and culture, especially entertainment, music, fashion, and sports. That is a good product for us to sell, and we are happy to promote these business hubs and holiday destinations.
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“Also, the direct connectivity between the Southern and Western parts of the continent is a window of opportunity for the continental free trade agenda of the African States. On our part, we are bringing different nationalities to be part of African economic prosperity. That is what SAA is offering Africa, and it is just the beginning,” she said.

Between the two countries, currently, are three-weekly flights.

Except for some tourists, Nigerians seeking a visa to South Africa on business, medical, studentship, research, essential skills and work grounds, have lately and routinely been having unsavoury tales about the South African immigration policy.

But that is beginning to change. Leke-Bamtefa urged all Nigerians and friends of South Africa, who want to visit South Africa for business, academic study, tourism, and conferences, to note that South Africa is open to Nigerians.

You are welcome
Indeed, South Africa has pledged to ease visa processing for the business community in Nigeria. Officials of the South African High Commission, at a parley with the business community in Lagos, said the unfriendly bottleneck would soon be over through longer visa validity approvals.

Consulate General of the Republic of South Africa, Lagos, Dr. Bobby Moroe, recently said the government had relaxed its visa policy to Nigerian businessmen and frequent travellers to South Africa by granting 10 years of visa validity.

Moroe said it is not good to issue a six months visa for intending travellers to visit his country for business. He noted that both South Africa and Nigeria had signed over 32 agreements cutting across various sectors including aviation, but lamented the lack of implementation of the agreements, which he said, was not good enough.
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He said: “We have always placed aviation in a box. Many people see aviation as just traveling from one point to another. We have never thought of leveraging the great opportunities that the aviation sector can help in national development. The aviation sector has been neglected for many years. I used to think that people who travel by air or who have business in aviation are from wealthy homes, and many people still think that way till today.”

The diplomat added that aviation contributes 4.5 per cent to the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), adding that it is a very huge sector that had been undermined over the years. Aviation provides the only rapid worldwide transportation network, which makes it essential for global business.

He said: “We need to be intentional about what we want to do with aviation. There are over 500 Nigerian professionals that are doing extremely well for themselves in South Africa in the tech space.”

Vice-Consul, Political, of the Consulate General in Lagos, Busisiwe Dlamini, stated that her country was looking at visa processing that would make visa application less cumbersome for applicants seeking to travel to South Africa.

Growing slowly, but surely
SAA currently has a fleet of seven aircraft, consisting of the six in the lease agreement and an additional Airbus A340. It also operated flights on the A350, which it planned to bring back to serve international destinations.

From its hub at Johannesburg OR Tambo International (JNB), the carrier previously operated long-haul flights to Frankfurt International (FRA), London Heathrow (LHR), and New York John F Kennedy (JFK), to mention a few.

With the delivery of the new aircraft, some of these routes could be reinstated, including flights to Dubai International (DXB), São Paulo Guarulhos (GRU), and Washington Dulles (IAD) airports. SAA’s A330 and A320 are part of the most modern and fuel-efficient aircraft families, making them ideal for its long-haul plans.
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Indeed, SAA is set to expand its fleet with new Airbus aircraft to relaunch international routes and increase seat capacity for its regional and domestic destinations. It plans to lease six new aircraft and commence long-haul flights to its previously-served destinations.

The Minister of Finance, Enoch Godongwana, and Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, recently gave the green light for this significant expansion.

In a dry-lease agreement, SAA will acquire one widebody and five narrowbody aircraft by the end of the year. A Request for Proposals (RFP) is currently out for a 36-month operating lease of four Airbus A320 aircraft.

The airline has already secured the other two – an A320 and A330 from the lessor community on the same terms as the one issued in the RFP. The terms and conditions in the new aircraft agreement are along the same competitive, transparent, and cost-effective lines that have characterised the “new SAA.”

Lamola said that the four aircraft the airline ordered would enter service by September 2023. Domestic and regional passenger numbers continue to increase, so the fleet expansion will help SAA meet the demand for air travel.

“This is a significant boost for the domestic and regional markets and underscores our commitment to expanding our route network and increasing our frequency in the African market. It will also ensure that the equilibrium between the supply of seats and the flow of traffic will benefit our passengers,” Lamola said.
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