It was useful for ZA Confidential to attend today’s media briefing by acting SAA CEO Nico Bezuidenhout, even though the message was a stark one. An emergency plan is underway to try to prevent a financial crash of the airline, and Finance Minister Nene also attended the event at SAA HQ. The airline is technically insolvent, and is reliant on government guarantees of R14.3bn to borrow the money needed to keep going and avoid business rescue. As the acting CEO put it: “We keep on chasing our tail, so to speak.” Minister Nene said government would continue to support the turnaround of the airline, but only if moved toward financial soundness, and he said there would be no increase in government debt. As previously announced, the state is to sell non-strategic assets to support ailing parastatals. There was no fresh detail in this. A 90 day fix-it programme by SAA is being regularly monitored. Nene confirmed that government has approved the cancellation of the SAA China route, to Beijing, on which the airline lost close to R1bn over 3 years. Air China will run services to replace SAA ones. Routes to India and North America also face pruning.
Maybe it was a sign. Today’s SAA results news conference took off 15 minutes late and landed 45 minutes late. It was presided over by some functionary who clearly considered himself to be very amusing, and this pompous patronising prat seemed blind to how badly things were organised. TV cameras on tripods were allowed to pollute the seating areas, which meant that people like me who had been seated at the back could not see the presentation properly, as our view was blocked. We were told that if we wrote too slowly, it didn’t matter, as the presentation would be available on departure on a memory stick. It wasn’t. To be fair I was e-mailed a media release. Unless I missed the small print, bizarrely there was no mention in it at all of my mate Nico. And the CFO, a nervous chap who kept crashing the power point and apologising, changed slides with frightening speed – when he got it right. Maybe a good way of preventing the full scale of the airline’s financial mess from being properly grasped? Not that this is an accurate analogy, but dealing with the media in this way is a bit like telling passengers there are life belts under the seats when there are none. The final nail in the credibility coffin came when SAA’s chairman decided to call for a round of applause after she had delivered a few assurances. Never, ever, ever, ever in almost 40 years as a journalist have I attended a news conference where a speaker called for applause. The smart-suited execs and lackeys at the back were happy to oblige the dear lady. I was not. I will not dwell on the acting CEO expressing anger that he had been previously attacked for being under-qualified and that there had been reports that he might have misrepresented his academic achievements. He was clearly unhappy to be quizzed on this again, and insisted he was blameless. Suffice to say that when I was discussing this as I left with a colleague, an SAA employee suggested I had been unfair to point this out, along with the fact that the airline has an acting CEO with the real one still suspended. I asked if I had my facts wrong, and was told I hadn’t – but the boss is doing a good job. Shame about the PR team, then.
The food was more disgusting than anything I have ever been served on a plane. Ever. Or a train. Maybe at school, but they were careful to avoid child abuse charges. Yep, it was that bad. Unidentifiable fried muck and under-ripe fruit. At least the soft drinks and bottled water had not been ruined by the cook. So an airline which prides itself on glamour and efficiency couldn’t rustle up an edible snack for a lunchtime media briefing. SAA has just announced it isn’t serving Champagne any more, and will stick to local bubbly. An astute branding or marketing team, or folk with a generosity of spirit, would have ensured a few bottles of this excellent Cape booze would be served to we VIP media guests. It seems SAA is in such financial doo-doo that it can’t afford either the bubbly or the trained professionals. Not so much Economy Class as No Class.
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