Pilots at debt-ridden SAA are threatening to go on strike over the national airline’s management and the appointment of interim CEO Zuks Ramasia.

The national carrier is in a dire financial state, is operating at a loss and only anticipates making a profit in the 2021/22 financial year. It has outstanding debt of R21.7bn.

Last week, unions gave the government seven days to fire the airline’s entire board and to persuade CEO Vuyani Jarana to withdraw his resignation.

Jarana cited slow decision-making and red tape at the airline, blurred lines of accountability and lack of funding as reasons for his departure. After the announcement of his resignation SAA announced the appointment of Ramasia, the current GM for operations, as acting CEO.

The SAA Pilots Association (Saapa) on Monday said the carrier would not survive unless critical operational and technical deficiencies were immediately addressed by a competent management team.

“SAA needs an interim CEO with the appropriate experience and financial acumen to successfully run a major airline. Unfortunately, Ms Ramasia is not that person,” Saapa said.

“Furthermore, many members of the current executive management team in place predate the appointment of Mr Jarana as CEO. It is the same team that navigated SAA into its current untenable position.”

The pilots’ association has written to the board expressing its dismay at Ramasia’s appointment and the retention of the “underperforming” management team.  Saapa said it was scheduled to meet the board this week.

The union’s sentiment was similar to that expressed by Numsa and South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca). Both accused the airline’s board members of presiding over massive corruption at the airline.

“We are canvassing SAA Pilots Association members on the appropriate action to take. At this stage, we cannot rule out embarking on lawful industrial action — for the first time in our 80-year history — to force the necessary changes at SAA,” the association said.

SAA was one of the state-owned enterprises embroiled in the state capture project.

The state capture commission of inquiry, headed by deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, is hearing testimony related to the aviation industry, which will include SAA and SA Express. The commission is expected to hear evidence which included the R15bn capital-raising exercise that SAA embarked on in 2015/16 and jet fuel procurement by SAA and SA Express from EML Energy and other governance issues.

Saapa said that under Jarana there was some progress at SAA, but some of the most crucial issues remain unresolved. It said the result was that the airline had been rendered dysfunctional.  

SAA pilots said they would not sit back while the cycle of deterioration was allowed to continue and, like the unions, they have been forced to draw a line in the sand and to prepare to take action.