The SAA Pilots' Association wants the new acting CEO to step aside for her predecessor, and is demanding the board be dismantled. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
The SAA Pilots' Association wants the new acting CEO to step aside for her predecessor, and is demanding the board be dismantled. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

National carrier SAA has lashed out at the SAA Pilots’ Association (Saapa) saying its remarks against acting CEO Zuks Ramasia were opportunistic and disparaging. 

The association’s remarks could hurt the debt-ridden airline as the aviation industry was sensitive to negative sentiment, “especially around business continuity”, SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali said.

On Monday, Saapa, which represents pilots at the airline, threatened to go on strike over Ramasia’s appointment and its perceptions of poor governance at SAA. It charged that 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 (Vuyana) Jarana as CEO. It is the same team that navigated SAA into its current untenable position.”

Tlali said they comments were “professionally disparaging” against Ramasia.

“On close examination, they appear to suggest a vote of no confidence in the board. This is an attempt to usurp the board’s authority and responsibility and must be rejected,” he said.

“Ms Ramasia is the most senior and experienced executive at SAA and before her acting appointment, occupied one of the critical portfolios, the airline’s global operations. In addition, she was a natural choice to act on occasions when the former CEO (Jarana) was away. She was never found wanting.”

On Tuesday, Tlali said those criticising Ramasia had not allowed her reasonable space to perform her duties.

“We are disappointed but not surprised. SAA has created an enabling environment of engagement with all its internal stakeholders, especially labour unions. It is disconcerting that the framework and platforms for engagement have been ignored.”

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 the SA Cabin Crew Association. Both unions accused the airline’s board members of presiding over massive corruption at the airline.

“We are canvassing Saapa 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.

Tlali hit back, saying SAA had many challenges and appealed to all concerned to “desist from making threats of embarking on industrial action”. “We cannot condone anything that seeks to diminish the airline’s chances to compete and significantly hurt its commercial interests.” 

SAA has an outstanding debt of R21.7bn and has not made a profit since 2011. It anticipates making a profit by 2021.

Last week unions gave the government seven days to fire the airline’s entire board and persuade Jarana to withdraw his resignation as CEO. He cited slow decision-making and red tape at the airline, blurred lines of accountability and lack of funding as reasons for his departure.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za