TravelStart CEO writes scathing letter to SAA

2015-02-19 05:04 - Selene Brophy
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Cape Town - Stephen Ekbergh, the head of one of Africa’s largest online travel booking websites, has taken SAA to task, listing ways and means for the airline to improve its situation.

It’s no secret South African Airways is in a difficult place financially. Its problems are only compounded in an industry that runs on fuel and rarely sees profitability – with the likes of kulula or fastjet offering glimmers of pan-African light on the so-called Dark Continent, while Middle East airlines and European legacy carriers dominate most of the market.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, it is clear South African Airways has desperately been trying to turn its situation around, as growing national sentiment boils over with each guarantee the airline is awarded, most recently R6,5bn

But despite making rapid headway after assembling a “War Cabinet” to tackle its many challenges in a tight 90-day turn-around plan (now entering its final stretch, as the airline culls unprofitable routes, maximises codeshares and looks at ways to cauterise any immediate financial haemorrhaging - the reality that SAA could or should be privatised remains.

Until the final outcome of SAA’s 90-day plan, set to culminate on 31 March – The CEO of TravelStart, one of Africa’s largest online travel booking websites, has taken the airline to task listing ways and means for the airline to improve its situation.

Towards the end of 2014, Ray Nkwe, SAA Regional General Manager for Market RSA sent out a message to the airline’s trade partners and key members of the travel trade, explaining the airline's situation, its intended rescue plans and expressed well wishes for its clients going into 2015. Calling on the industry for its support, following is an excerpt of the SAA letter emailed to Traveller24 by a source that wished to remain anonymous:

“During the next 90 days, we will review and renegotiate some of our contracts, re-optimize some of our assets, and ensure that our organizational structure and staffing are aligned with our long-term plans. However, in addition to these actions we need to improve our revenue performance, and in this regard, we look forward to your continued partnership and support.

SAA is an 80-year-old airline, one of the most respected in the world for its professionalism, customer service, operational - and service reliability. We offer exceptional in- flight service and on-the-ground experience at Africa’s biggest and most modern hub and have all the ingredients to place the airline back on a sound commercial footing from where we can expand. In order to do this we would like to count on your support in conveying a positive message to your clients that SAA remains Africa’s best airline and is one that delivers good customer service and great value for money.

My team and I are doing all we can to promote our brand and offerings so that you can sell our product with confidence. I am truly grateful for the continuous support you provide us, and look forward to your assistance in on our journey to restore SAA to profitability and its former high standing in the travel industry.”

Ekbergh, naming TravelStart as one of SAA’s top performing agents in the country, however did not take kindly to the call for support and in turn wrote his own letter to the national carrier.

The following letter was also emailed to Traveller24, which we then verified with TravelStart. Have a read and tell us if you think SAA should have Ekbergh consult with SAA's 'war cabinet', aimed at turning the airline around? Email us at or post a comment below and you could be featured on Traveller24.

Stephan Ekbergh wrote, “Dear Ray

“Thanks for your letter sent 31 Dec with regards to the current and ongoing situation at SAA.

“I appreciate you reaching out like you did in the letter.

“Unfortunately, I can’t agree with most things you say in your letter. If SAA was so respected in the world you wouldn’t have the problems you have had the last 15 years.

“I would like to give some advice how you could turn around the airline in a short time.

“I’m the founder and CEO of Travelstart. We are Africa’s largest OTA, established in 1999, in Scandinavia with operation starting in ZA in 2006. For the past 15 years we have been servicing tens of millions of customers.

“We are one of your top performing agents in the country.

“Personally, I used to be a very loyal member in the Voyager program. As it is, I’m doing everything I can to avoid giving SAA any money nowadays. So I rather go via Dubai when I travel to most of your African destinations.

“I know I’m not the only one that feels this way.

“SAA used to be one of the great airlines of the world and I want it to regain its status again.

“So here is some advice from an insider of 30 years.


“First focus on your most loyal customer.

“The Voyager members are your low hanging fruit and making them into raving fans should be your priority. Make it easier to redeem miles and upgrade. Do NOT have different fare classes for voyager upgradable and not. Rather charge more miles for an upgrade than charging more money.

“Stop charging more taxes when you want to upgrade using miles.

“In short make it simple for people to redeem their miles, even on board. Learn from Lufthansa and Emirates.

“SAA does everything the exact opposite. Frequent travellers are cheated fooled and generally treated like complete idiots and just as a source of squeezing money out of a monopoly situation.

“Treat customers with respect.


“Make the website easier to use. Make booking easier via a simpler user interface. Make it easier to retrieve and change bookings. Learn from the best: American carriers, Emirates etc.

“Tips! People don’t read on websites, make it more intuitive. Study our website:


“Make it easy for people to get hold of SAA. Now people have to wait until office hours for reservations. Voyager member cannot get hold of customer service except week days, as far as I remember.

“Have customer service staff who speaks good English.

“Use social media more, use twitter, facebook.


“Change to company culture. SAA staff at airports treat you normally like you’re a criminal and a burden.

“JNB is of course, as always, the worst place on earth and I do everything I can to avoid that airport.

“Set a new goal to become the best carrier in the world. Communicate this to everyone.

“Empower every front line employee to give the best service possible, from customer service, to ground staff, stewards etc.

“They are your champions and the people we see and meet. These people must be obsessed about SAA and your values.

“These should be your best friends. EMPOWER them to give great service and they WILL do the job.

“Some other tips:

“Hire the best communications manager you can find! Get one who speaks layman talk not corporate lingo (like in the letter you just sent).

“Hire a new advertising agency, but only once you’ve got everything right.

“Lower your international fares, they are not competitive at all. They must be slashed.

“Instil a frugal culture in the company. Fire the middle management.

“Frugality is everything in an operational business as an airline.

“Faster turnaround times. Get the on board crew to do more tasks.

“Skip tax free on board. Sell it online instead.

“Can the inflight magazine. Let a 3rd party do it instead and get them to pay to deliver the magazine on board.

“Open up non-stop lines btw CPT and London again.

“More frequency to African cities. Africa = low hanging fruit.

“In short, fastest way to improve focus on voyager member and programme - lower fares and up the service - empower your staff.

“Let me know if I can assist with anything else?

“Stephan Ekbergh

“Funder and CEO of Travelstart”

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