Is SAA's new A350 plane on its New York route too little, too late?

2020-01-21 21:05 - Selene Brophy
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Our national carrier appears to be floundering, raising the question about its lifeline, fuel-efficient new A350 planes and whether they're too little, too late?

On Tuesday 21 January, South African Airways (SAA) confirmed last-minute cancellations of key domestic and international flight routes - due to low demand and the need to conserve funds as it undergoes business rescue. A process that began in December 2019, with Treasury in a quagmire of bureaucracy when it comes to raising the required R2bn to ensure the process is controlled and operations can continue.

The R2bn guarantee to keep the airline afloat was due this past Sunday.

Certain flights across all major hubs in SA - from OR Tambo, Cape Town International and King Shaka - are expected to be affected up until the weekend - with Mango assisting passengers where possible, and SAA promising it would keep passengers informed of any added schedule changes.

UPDATE: SAA confirms details of cancelled flights - Here's what affected SAA ticket holders need to know

And in the very same breath the airline has announced the first international flight from OR Tambo International (ORTIA) airport to New York’s John F Kennedy (JFK) International Airport operated by its new Airbus A350-900 has taken off. 

SAA has been operating training flights for pilots on the new state-of-the-art Airbus 350-900 aircraft between Joburg and Cape Town, before transferring the new planes to international routes - which it says also impacted load and the need to consolidate domestic flights.

PICS | SAA's 1st of four brand new A350-900 jets just began operating between Cape Town and Joburg

But load isn't the only thing that's low, as sentiment concerning the airline is too unfortunately. 

And while this Airbus model is vaunted for its environmental friendliness and improved fuel-efficiency, replacing the Airbus A340-600 currently used by SAA, this is a highly competitive route. Cape Town has just seen the return of US carrier United Airlines to Africa - with the launch of a new direct route to the Big Apple that shaves four hours off the transatlantic journey.

WATCH | United's new direct route from New York to Cape Town takes off, but what's next for SA's Air Access team?

“The introduction of the A350s will contribute to our operational efficiencies and cost reduction and forms part of the ongoing fleet renewal programme," states Zuks Ramasia, SAA’s Acting CEO in the latest statement, “For example, through the A350s, we will lower our operational costs, and save on our fuel consumption by 25% and also lower our maintenance costs by 40% over a five-year period."

But the lowering of operational costs is unlikely to translate into better fares for passengers, even if they can enjoy the "A350s superior features such as a quieter cabin and relaxing in-flight experience including the all-new In-flight Entertainment (IFE), extra-legroom seats in Economy Class and lie-flat beds in Business Class".  

It points to the critical analysis that SAA has seen “poor aircraft utilisation", compounded by challenge of Johannesburg's location that makes "running a profitable long-haul international business quite complex".

As treasury continues to convince banks to supply SAA with more loans, "guaranteed with proceeds from its sale of certain assets", its Business Rescue Strategy needs to better evaluate loss-making international routes, and fast. 

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