SAA Pilots v Myeni: Insight alters after assuming “brace position” for real

Four years ago, I thought my time on this mortal coil may have ended. A routine 45 minute flight from Johannesburg to Pietermaritzburg became one of the more stressful periods in my life. Faulty landing gear forced the pilot to burn fuel during three hours of circling above OR Tambo before a belly-flop skid along the tarmac. Everything worked out for the best (see video below), but the experience of assuming the “brace position” in earnest is one I’d rather never repeat. A memorable part of the experience was the manner in which the pilot – who sounded many years older than his 30-something years – kept us informed, instilling confidence that he was in control of the obviously tricky situation. It provided pause on the excellent training South African pilots receive. The process of training and building experience is at the centre of unnecessary friction between pilots at the national airline and SAA’s politically-appointed chairman Dudu Myeni’s demands for more rapid “transformation”. In this thoughtful contribution, the chairman of the SAA Airline Association John Harty explains why his membership does not yet reflect national demographics. Hopefully someone, somewhere, will pay attention. As former SAA director Russell Loubser mentions elsewhere on Biznews today, all it takes to kill an airline is a single accident. Or, perhaps, even the perception risks of that happening are being raised through fast-tracked training. – Alec Hogg     

By John Harty*

There are three “barriers to entry” in becoming an airline pilot:

The first is economic, due to the very high cost of the training itself. In order to obtain a Commercial Pilots licence and Instrument Rating an aspirant pilot must spend somewhere between R600 000 and R1 000 000. However this is the most basic of qualifications and with this a pilot can only hope to fly a small aircraft.

John Harty, chairman of SAA Pilots’ Association
John Harty, chairman of SAA Pilots’ Association

This leads into the second barrier, experience. Only once a pilot has obtained sufficient experience will they be able to cope with the demands of piloting a large commercial airliner. This is a complex task that requires not just piloting skills but also expertise in human factors, knowledge of weather systems and the ability to put oneself ahead of the aircraft at all times. In aviation, this final quality of putting oneself ahead of the aircraft is referred to as Airmanship. and there is overwhelming evidence to show that more experienced pilots generally  possess this quality in greater quantities than less experienced ones.

Read also: Hawks probe SAA: Corruption, irregular route closuse on charge sheet

Finally, the third barrier is simply the availability of job opportunities. This is directly tied to the economy in which the airline operates as well as the management of the airline and the appetite of its shareholder to use aviation as a driver of economic growth and opportunity. These job opportunities only arise when either an airline is expanding and adding new routes, aircraft and pilots or if an airline is static or shrinking, through retirements of senior pilots.

The demographic profile of pilots at SAA (as at 6 July 2015) is as follows:

767 pilots in total

207 pilots from the designated group – 27%

145 black pilots – 19%

67 African pilots – 9%

560 white male pilots – 73%

After 20 years of democracy,  it is understandable that this invokes criticism of the Shareholder, the Company and  most unfairly  of the SAA Pilots’ Association.  However,  it needs to be put into perspective and understood.

Despite assertions to the contrary, most of the DG pilots in SAA were trained in South Africa and they are welcomed into the airline.

Read also: Solidarity: Irresponsible BEE pursuit plunges SAA, Prasa into crisis

The simple fact is, SAA employs the majority of all licensed Designated Group pilots in South Africa that meet the minimum entry requirements and has the most transformed and representative pilot body in South Africa by a very large margin.

So why is the national carrier of South Africa not more representative?

There are only three ways to increase the number of pilots from the designated groups at SAA:

  1. Grow the airline. Instead SAA is shrinking and has 50 pilots fewer than it had 15 years ago. If the airline was growing at a low rate of 3% per annum the airline would be able to employ 24 extra pilots each year. There are some DG pilots employed in other airlines in the country but SAA is not able to employ them as it is shrinking in size, being now approximately 10% smaller than at any other time in the last 15 years.  While SAA has been shrinking, Mango (a subsidiary of SAA)  has been growing.  As a result job opportunities, growth and promotion prospects are being lost to SAA and its pilots and instead going to Mango, a State owned subsidiary airline that at last count had only 3 DG pilots out of a total of 100.
  2. Replace Pilots who retire or exit for other reasons. Currently, around 8-15 pilots are retiring or leaving SAA per annum, but as the airline is shrinking none or very few of these pilots are being replaced.
  3. Offer voluntary severance packages. This has not been considered and it would need to be financially attractive to entice pilots to leave before retirement. This would be expensive and SAA does not have surplus funds available to fund this cost.

The majority of pilots join major airlines for life. You start as a new, young pilot at the bottom of the seniority list and leave at the retirement age which is currently 63 at SAA. The 767 pilots at SAA have over 13,000 years of accumulated years of service which is an average of 17 years each. Very few pilots leave the airline to join another major airline as they would then be required to join at the bottom of the seniority list at that new airline, and once again work their way up the seniority list toward a captain position. Historically the time to reach a Captain position at SAA has been between 13 – 15 years, but due to an expected further slowdown in the airline, this will increase to about 22 years. This further delay may entice some of our senior first officers to leave for airlines in the Middle East and has already resulted in the loss of some DG pilots, the very group we are trying to grow.

Some of the comments posted under the link to this story on Alec Hogg's Facebook page.
Some of the comments posted under the link to this story on Alec Hogg’s Facebook page.

There is no longer a pipeline available for enthusiastic youngsters from the Designated Groups of Previously Disadvantaged Individuals to become pilots. The cost of training a person to obtain a commercial pilot’s license is around R1m. This is a large amount of money and is a barrier to entry into the profession. SAA used to have a cadet scheme where approximately 12 pilots per annum were offered training up to a commercial pilot’s license with around 220 hours’ flying experience.  They would then join Airlink or SA Express etc to get experience whereafter they would progress to SAA. Unfortunately, the cadet scheme has been discontinued due to the high costs.  Like all corporations in South Africa, SAA contributes 1% of its wage bill to a SETA as a skills levy but the Transport SETA(TETA),  for some reason refused to supply SAA with funds towards this aviation skills program. The SA Air Force is also no longer producing a steady stream of qualified and experienced pilots. There are media reports of R50-R70 million being given to politically connected individuals for the training of pilots. Sadly very few, if any, pilots have graduated from that program.

Read also: Breathtaking. The world according to SAA chair Dudu Myeni

When there are vacancies for pilots at SAA the principles of Employment Equity are applied. (which is fully supported by the SAA Pilots’ Association) The selection of new pilots is done by a selection board put in place by SAA management. The SAA Pilots’ Association has one observer who sits on the selection panel to ensure fairness but he/she does not have a vote. The SAA Pilots’ Association does not select new pilots for SAA, it is done by SAA management.

In summary, for the Company to increase the number of DG pilots at SAA it needs to:

  • Grow SAA to provide more job opportunities in the market and in SAA itself.
  • Increase the pool of aspirant DG pilots that are qualified through a cadet scheme or sustainable and accountable public/private partnership run by any of the many excellent flight schools in SA

In order to achieve this, it is fundamental that SAA be recapitalized properly for the first time in its history, be equipped with an experienced and qualified board that is fit for purpose and to appoint a competent and experienced executive management team that is allowed to run the Company , free from shareholder interference and cumbersome decision making protocols.

SAA  and the Treasury should follow the successful model used by Ethiopian Airlines and the Middle Eastern carriers and have a “whole state’ aviation policy where every government department is working towards enhancing the competitiveness , reach and growth of the National carrier. A model that has seen those companies and economies thrive. A model that has seen the creation of thousands of well paid, highly skilled jobs for the people of those countries.

  • John Harty is Chairman of the SAA Pilots’ Association. Aged 62 he is a senior caption, and Airbus 340 & 330 senior check captain. He’s been at the SAA for 39 years and will retire next year July. John has over 21,000 hours of flight time and has been involved on the executive of the SAA Pilots’ Association for 20 years.
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