Picture: BUSINESS DAY
Picture: BUSINESS DAY

In a case of déjà vu, the National Treasury saved the day for SAA last week after the airline commissioned yet another report from aviation experts recommending it should urgently slash costs.

SAA retained Seabury Consulting - a division of Accenture that advises the aviation industry - in January to advise on restructuring the airline, bringing the consultants back for the second time since 2007, when they were appointed to help SAA reduce head office and fleet costs.

SAA apparently did not act on Seabury's first report, as the airline later sought a R4.72-billion guarantee in September 2016, which was granted on condition that it urgently implement "more aggressive cost-cutting initiatives ", according to a written reply to parliamentary questions by Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba on June 14.

SAA spokesman Tlali Tlali said the airline's board had "substantially" implemented Seabury's latest recommendations. "The recommendations they made formed the basis of the five-year corporate plan which was tabled with the shareholder on June 30 2017," he said.

"In addition, they reviewed the [long-term turnaround strategy] which was developed by SAA in 2013, and also put together a turnaround plan that focuses on immediate interventions."

These included network changes and the use of the right aircraft in response to customer demand, which Tlali said were implemented recently.

Last week's R2.2-billion bail-out of the airline - paid to Standard Chartered to avert a call on the rest of SAA's guaranteed loans - has raised eyebrows.

Mayihlome Tshwete, Gigaba's spokesman, said the payout to Standard Chartered was the end result of a guarantee.

"There are a number of guarantees that SAA has from the state, and because Standard Chartered Bank was not willing to carry over that amount, it means SAA had to call in that guarantee, that is why we had to give them the R2.2-billion," he said.

Nicky Weimar, a senior economist at Nedbank's economic unit, said the state could not afford to give sustained financial assistance to SAA or any other struggling state-owned enterprises, as this would increase the government's debt significantly beyond its current estimates.

"What this indicates is, if we continue along this line without very firm actions to improve the situation at SOEs, then there will be a very severe drain on government resources and that is going to [feed] into the very fear that all ratings agencies have," she said.

That could lead to further downgrades, with the status of rand-denominated debt a particular concern, Weimar said.

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