As one of the world’s oldest airlines boasting an illustrious history spanning 90 years, today, SAA is a growing player in the global air space. One of the major thrusts of our vision for the future is continued global expansion in conjunction with strategic airline partners. We understand that today’s customers want high levels of service – not just on board, but also regarding check-in and frequency of flights available to major destinations. Therefore, one of the critical aspects of transforming SAA is to focus on passenger services. Each new year brings new challenges and exciting prospects. It is our number one wish to continue attracting customer loyalty, which results in commercial success and a benchmark for assessing public-sector excellence.
As one of the world’s oldest airlines, South African Airways (SAA) first took flight on 1 February 1934 after the South African government took over Union Airways and renamed it South African Airways.
SAA honoured the Union Airways order for the three Junkers Ju 52 aircraft, which were delivered in October 1934 and went into service 10 days later. The aircraft was configured to carry 14 passengers and a crew of four. The speed, comfort and reliability of the Ju 52 aircraft proved to a cautious and sceptical public that air travel was safe, fast and here to stay.
With Johannesburg becoming the hub of air travel in South Africa, the airline moved to Rand Airport on 1 July.
As new routes were opened and flights between major cities increased, SAA began operating its first regional service to Lusaka in June, with stops in Pietersburg, Bulawayo and Livingstone.
In July, the service was extended to Kisumu on Lake Victoria, taking over the Imperial Airways land-plane service. The SAA service was extended from Livingstone to Kisumu. The Imperial flying boat service also stopped at Kisumu, where airmail bags and passengers to or from SAA aircraft were transferred.
The next regional service was to Lourenço Marques (now known as Maputo), where airmail also destined for Imperial flying boats was transferred. A service from Rand to Windhoek was also introduced. Shortly before the war, this service was extended up to Luanda.
During the war years, SAA ordered Lockheed Lodestar aircraft from the USA. These twin-engine airliners were delivered during the hostilities and only the survivors saw service with SAA towards the end and after the war. After the war broke out, all SAA staff and aircraft were transferred to the SAAF. During the early part of the conflict, some aircraft and staff were released from the SAAF to operate limited services for the airline from 1 December 1944. As more Lodestars were released, services were increased. The remaining Lodestars were released after the war; a total of 19 survived.
During the conflict, new airports were planned for Durban, Cape Town and an international airport in Johannesburg. The construction of the airport at Johannesburg would take several years to complete. The airport was named Palmietfontein, and was situated south of Rand Airport. British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) planned to operate its service with Avro York aircraft, some of which were leased to SAA to operate the reciprocal service.
SAA’s first intercontinental service, known as the Springbok Service, commenced on 10 November. The service routed Palmietfontein-Nairobi-Khartoum-Cairo-Castel Benito-Hurn Bournemouth (Heathrow had not yet opened). The flight took three days to complete and overnight stops were made at Nairobi and Cairo, with a flying time of about 33 to 34 hours. At first, a weekly service was operated, and finally six services per week were flown.
SAA experienced a massive growth of aircraft, passengers, cargo and staff. When more Skymasters entered service, the Avro Yorks were returned to BOAC. Notably, air hostesses were first introduced in September.
In June, films were introduced on SAA Skymaster aircraft. This was the first in-flight entertainment to be offered by the airline. It was unsuccessful and soon discontinued.
In August, the airline introduced four Lockheed Constellations on the Springbok Service, reducing the flying time to London to 28 hours. The Connie, as it was affectionately known, was the first pressurised airliner to be operated by SAA. Pressurisation enabled the aircraft to cruise above most of the fearsome African weather. The Constellation proved popular with its passengers, offering a mostly smooth and comfortable journey for its 46 passengers.
South Africa was the destination of the world’s first passenger jet service when a BOAC Comet 1 landed at Palmietfontein on 3 May. It was a historical flight, with the journey taking just under 24 hours to complete.
SAA entered the jet age using two chartered Comets from BOAC; the first service was operated from London to Johannesburg on 4 October with Comet G-ANAV. The two aircraft had dual BOAC-SAA titling and logos and were operated by SAA crew.
SAA introduced the Douglas DC-7B aircraft on the Springbok Service. The 7B was the ultimate pre-jet era aircraft, holding the title of the fastest piston-engine airliner in the world. It also boasted a respectable range. To take advantage of the performance of the aircraft, SAA introduced a fast one-stop service from Johannesburg-Khartoum-London - namely, the East Coast express - and the time for the trip was around 21 hours.
The DC-7B also inaugurated the fortnightly service to Australia, which started in November, routing Johannesburg-Mauritius-Cocos Islands-Perth.
The year marked the arrival of the Boeing 707 Intercontinental jet aircraft, which heralded new dimensions of speed, range and comfort, and accommodated over 150 passengers, depending on the configuration.
SAA introduced the airliner into service in October 1960 in a mixed First Class/Economy Class configuration, carrying a total of 139 passengers. Moreover, the 707 inaugurated this service to the Americas in February 1969, flying Johannesburg-Rio de Janeiro-New York.
Most African states opposed to the apartheid SA government’s policy denied SAA over-flying rights above their countries, forcing the airline to fly a long detour around the bulge of West Africa.
With the decade marking a time of great expansion for the airline, SAA introduced Boeing 727 jetliners for use in regional and internal services.
Boeing 737 airliners were introduced to supplement the 727 fleet.
On 6 November, Boeing 747 ZS-SAN arrived at Johannesburg on its delivery flight. The huge wide-body airliner attracted the nickname ‘Jumbo Jet’, and ‘Lebombo’ was the first of 30 B747s to be operated by the airline. The early model 747 aircraft were fondly known as ‘747 Classic’. The Jumbos were introduced on the Springbok Service in December of that year. In-flight entertainment in the form of movies was provided for passengers during the long flight to Europe.
In June, Boeing 707 aircraft inaugurated a service to Hong Kong with an en-route stop at the Seychelles Islands.
In 1976, Boeing 747SP aircraft were introduced to the SAA fleet and immediately set a world record. To demonstrate its long-range capability, the first aircraft was flown non-stop from the Boeing Company factory in Seattle to Cape Town during its delivery flight. This was a world record for an un-refuelled commercial aircraft; the record was held for over a decade.
On the back of the gradual introduction of Boeing 747SPs on B707 routes and the increasing frequency of other services, in 1980, a new service to Taipei, Taiwan, was introduced using these airliners. At the same time, the stop at Seychelles Islands was dropped in favour of Mauritius on the Hong Kong service.
Two new 747 Combi aircraft were also delivered this year. With the aircraft’s cargo compartments found at the rear half of the main deck, they were used on destinations with high cargo demand and lower passenger numbers. The venerable B707 operated its last scheduled SAA service from Paris to Johannesburg on 26 December.
More B737 and Airbus A300 airliners began entering SAA service towards the end of the year to replace B707 and B727 aircraft.
By the beginning of the year, all 727s were sold. As a result, two more B747 airliners were delivered. These differed from earlier models by having the upper-deck compartment stretched to accommodate more passengers, and the more powerful and fuel-efficient engines enabled the aircraft to fly from Johannesburg to Europe non-stop.
1986 - 1987
Due to economic sanctions, flights to New York were suspended in November 1986 and the Australian government also withdrew from its landing rights in South Africa in 1987. In light of this, SAA leased or sold some of its aircraft and crew were leased to other operators or offered pensions.
The year marked the reopening of markets, with the African National Congress (ANC) chartering a SAA flight from Lusaka on 8 August. As sanctions eased, on 8 September, for the first time in 28 years, SAA flights operated via Egypt and Sudan, using the East Route over Africa.
Additionally, South African Express Airlines was granted a licence to operate domestically in South Africa, with SAA as a 10% shareholder. The airline would be a feeder service operator and take over some of SAA’s low-density internal routes. On board domestic flights, SAA introduced multi-lingual greetings in English, Zulu, Sotho and Afrikaans. On international flights, passengers were greeted in the relevant language of their destination. Meanwhile, SAA launched its Cadet Pilot Training programme to provide previously disadvantaged individuals with an opportunity to become pilots.
SAA launched its Voyager loyalty program with seven partners and a database of 65,000 members.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup Final was the start of what has become a tradition of SAA’s involvement in major international events. On 24 June, an SAA Boeing 747 flew over Ellis Park ahead of the Rugby World Cup final, one of sport’s most memorable moments. It was described by a rugby writer as “completely unexpected, brilliantly executed, totally thrilling”.
The year marked the unveiling of “Ndizani” - a multicoloured Boeing 747 that SAA used to transport athletes to the Atlanta Olympic Games. Notably, the aircraft carried Josiah Thugwane, who made history as the first Black South African athlete to win an Olympic gold medal.
On the back of rapid growth, particularly in services to Africa and the modernisation of the long-haul fleet, an alliance between SAA, SA Express and SA Airlink was formed in February of that year.
In November, SAir Group - the holding company of Swissair - bought a 20% share in SAA for R1.4 billion.
On 4 January, SAA completed its first full year of operation under its ‘Strategy for Winning’ programme.
29 February saw the SAA Board announce its decision to obtain 21 Boeing 737-800 new-generation aircraft for SAA’s domestic and regional operations.
To capitalise on the vast opportunities of new technology, SAA announced the roll-out of several initiatives in the e-commerce arena on 15 November. The first involved the relaunch of flysaa.com. This fully functional, customer-focused website dramatically enhanced SAA’s service to its customers and involved a total revamp of the existing website.
The system at SAA Cargo was upgraded nationally and security booms were installed at Johannesburg International Airport entrances. The airline upgraded its reservations check-in and departure control systems with those of AxsRes by Atraxis (replacing SAAFARI).
On 15 March, SAA launched an online booking facility, and on 1 April, appointed André Viljoen as its President and Chief Executive Officer.
As part of its commitment to women empowerment in the workplace, 4 September saw an all-female crew for SAA put in charge of a flight – a first for the airline. In November, Transnet returned the ailing SAir Group’s share in SAA, and on the 5th of that month, the airline launched www.saabiz.co.za, an online booking service for business travel.
SAA opened First- and Business-Class lounges at London’s Heathrow Airport, ringing in a new era for the company’s product offerings.
On 7 March, SAA implemented an extensive fleet renewal programme and named Airbus as its supplier. The airline placed an order for 41 new aircraft, with a list price of USD 3.5-billion, formalising Africa’s biggest jetliner acquisition.
1 July saw SAA celebrating 50 years of service on the Frankfurt (Germany) route.
On 26 August, Cadet pilots-in-training returned to South Africa from Adelaide (Australia) and a $20-million acquisition of Air Tanzania was finalised on 7 October.
SAA appointed its first black female trainee pilot, Asnath Mahape, on 7 January.
The airline signed a $200-million contract with Rolls Royce to service the airline’s first nine A340-600 aircraft with Rolls Royce Trent 500 engines.
SAA took delivery of its first Airbus A340-600 on 25 January.
On 10 February, SAA moved to a new domestic terminal at Johannesburg International Airport.
After an absence of more than 40 years, SAA was reinstated to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) on 10 April.
On 22 April, SAA became a new sponsor of the Top 8 South African soccer tournament.
With SAA purchasing a 49% share in Air Tanzania Limited in July 2002, the new outfit was launched in April 2003.
On 30 July, SAA announced plans to charter planes for Muslim pilgrims between December 2003 and February 2004.
On 6 October, the new flysaa.com website added an African portal to bring internet booking facilities to the whole continent.
SAA invited the public to participate in a competition to name the new SAA planes and the fleet’s new Business Class on 21 October.
SAA celebrated its 70th anniversary.
SAA Voyager celebrated its 10th anniversary.
SAA became the first non-Saudi airline allowed to fly to Medina to carry Muslim pilgrims going on Haj.
After an absence of more than 40 years, South Africa was reinstated as a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Thereafter, SAA became a member of the global Star Alliance in April of that year, becoming the first African member of any global grouping. In addition, SAA unveiled two Star Alliance-branded aircraft - a 737-800 and Airbus A340-600 - as part of the global network’s requirements.
The impact that joining Star Alliance had on the business saw a spike in international traffic in the first six months of fiscal 2006 - 2007, resulting in load factors exceeding 90% on some long-haul routes.
In August of that year, Voyager launched a co-branded credit card with Nedbank.
In May, SAA launched an 18-month restructuring programme to make the airline profitable. This process was expected to save the airline R2.7 billion.
In November, SAA became the proud official carrier of the South African rugby team - the Springboks - as part of a sponsorship agreement between the airline and SA Rugby.
Two retired 747-400s are reactivated for flights to Lagos, while, in June, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) agreed to extend SAAs' sponsorship of the organisation for another three-and-a-half years, in a deal worth R2.5 million. It was announced that a new ATP World Tour tournament would be held in South Africa in 2009.
In February, the airline appointed Siza Mzimela as its first female CEO, taking over the position from Chris Smyth, the acting CEO after Khaya Ngqula left.
In December, SAA permanently retired two Boeing 747-400s.
SAA began flights to Beijing, China in January.
In February, SAA's new Airbus A320-200 made its first revenue flight between Johannesburg and Durban.
In August, SAA ended its Cape Town-London route after 20 years, due to declining passenger numbers and increasing airport taxes.
SAA ended flights to Buenos Aires.
Voyager underwent a brand refresh as part of its 20th anniversary.
In January, SAA announced plans to end its non-stop services to Beijing and Mumbai. Services to China were replaced by Star Alliance partner, Air China, with a flight to Beijing.
Voyager changed from a mileage-based frequent flyer programme (FFP) to a fully-fledged revenue-based FFP in February. It was among the first FFPs in Africa and among the third worldwide.
In June, the then-acting CEO stated that London, Hong Kong, Munich, Frankfurt and Perth were the only profitable long-haul routes.
In July, further enhancements took place as the first Voyager credit card co-branded with Ecobank in Ghana.
On 15 July, the SAA Group operated Africa’s first sustainable biofuel flights. SAA and Mango flights on Boeing 737-800s between Johannesburg and Cape Town made history as the first sustainable biofuel flights to have taken place on the African continent. The flights used home-grown feedstock using a nicotine-free, hybridised tobacco plant.
SAA recorded an operating profit for the first time in 10 years.
In March, a new Customer Loyalty Programme Accounting Guideline (IFRIS 15) became effective, whereafter SAA Voyager changed to a Business Unit within the SAA Group.
December saw the first co-branded cheque card take off in South Africa with Nedbank - the first to be introduced globally.
In March, a second Voyager co-branded credit card launched in Africa with Nedbank in Mozambique.
SAA was placed under business rescue due to poor financial performance in December of that year.
January of that year saw SAA being named one of the top on-time-performing airlines. On the 21st of that month, the airline consolidated selected domestic flights and an international service to Munich. The airline’s A350 also began operating its first international flight to and from New York.
On 30 January, SAA conserved cash and scrutinised financial and commercial efficiencies.
SAA moved forward with restructuring plans on 6 February.
The airline brought Miss Universe back home aboard its new A350-900 aircraft on 8 February, in addition to SAA business rescue practitioners receiving approval to extend the publication of its Business Rescue Plan to 31 March 2020.
SAA celebrated Valentine’s Day with Sweetheart fares to Johannesburg and Cape Town.
In March, the airline joined the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking.
On 12 March, the airline began following the World Health Organisation’s and IATA’s protocols on COVID-19, and on 18 March, scaled-down capacity due to travel disruptions and restrictions caused by the pandemic.
On 2 April, SAA operated charter flights for various governments to repatriate foreign nationals from South Africa.
On 8 April, SAA cargo ramped up capacity using passenger aircraft for cargo only, to transport essential cargo during the COVID-19 lockdown.
SAA operated a repatriation flight from South Africa to return Canadian citizen’s home on 10 April.
On 9 May, the redeeming of Voyager miles was paused.
On 1 June, SAA business rescue practitioners issued a draft business rescue plan and received consent to extend the publication of the final business rescue plan to 8 June 2020.
In July, creditors voted to accept the restructuring plan, allowing the airline to continue business. Also during that month, pilots signed a deal with SAA - ushering in a new chapter in airline history.
On 30 July, SAA welcomed a new Interim Executive Commercial, Mr Simon Newton-Smith and was awarded a renewed operating license on 4 August.
On 28 September, the airline signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with Kenya Airways to share strategic capabilities. Adding to this, Emirates and South African Airways reactivated their partnership to boost connectivity and expand customer options in Africa.
October saw the South African government looking for partners to finance the airline. Fortunately it soon after bailed SAA out with R10.5 billion to implement the turnaround strategy.
Kenya Airways and SAA signed a strategic partnership framework in November, and added Lagos to its African route network, and resumed services to Mauritius.
In February, government entered into talks with three potential investors to revive the airline and resume operations.
SAA emerged for business rescue in April, returning as a smaller, more streamlined and efficient entity.
In June, progress was made in the disposal of 51% of shares in SAA to the Takatso Consortium, the preferred strategic equity partner for SAA. The sales and purchase process was concluded and signed by the Department of Public Enterprises and Takatso Consortium. The next step was the approval of the transaction by various regulatory bodies.
The Takatso Consortium comprises two companies, namely Harith General Partners and Global Airways. The former is a major investor in African infrastructure and airports, while the latter is a South African aircraft leasing firm. Takatso will have a controlling stake in SAA and is expected to invest over 3 billion Rand (USD 195.34 million) into the airline over a three-year period.
In September, Professor John Lamola was appointed Executive Chairperson and Interim CEO.
SAA Voyager opened redemptions and advised Voyager members that mileage expiry had been extended until 31 March 2022, and Elite statuses had been extended until 31 December 2022.
The year also marked SAA's return to the skies, with the airline returning to operations on 23 September.
In October, SAA agreed to resume services to Mauritius from November.
In November, SAA signed a strategic partnership framework with Kenya Airways, and added Lagos to its African route network. Furthermore, Emirates and South African Airways reactivated their partnership.
In December, SAA introduced new destinations and increased frequencies ahead of the festive season. SAA launched a route to Windhoek and Namibia, and returned to Victoria Falls and Zimbabwe. It also signed a cooperation agreement with CemAir.
In February, the airline restarted flights to Durban, and recorded more than 1,000 flights since it exited business rescue.
In March, SAA increased its capacity after the grounding of Comair and added new daily flights to meet the new demand.
In April, Kenya Airways and SAA customers were provided access to lounges in both countries.
SAA Voyager decreased the qualification criteria for Silver, Gold, Platinum and Lifetime Platinum status. The validity of Voyager miles was again extended until 31 March 2023.
Qualification criteria to prevent miles from expiring were changed from 6,000 SAA miles accrued to one accrual or redemption activity.
In June, SAA and Discovery announced a strategic partnership to provide airport lounge access for Discovery Bank clients.
A youth development programme began at SAA Technical on 16 June.
July 2022 saw the signing of a codeshare agreement between Kenya Airways and SAA.
On 14 July, Tebogo Tsimane was appointed interim Chief Commercial officer, while Kenya Airways and SAA signed a codeshare agreement so that customers can enjoy seamless connections in Africa.
In August, SAA observed Women’s Month with an all-female flight crew on two separate flights from Johannesburg to Harare, and Johannesburg to Durban respectively.
In September, SAA celebrated a year on the wing - an occasion to mark a full year since the airline’s return to flight after halting operations on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Business Rescue Process.
In December, SAA introduced new destinations and increased frequencies ahead of the festive season. The airline launched a route to Windhoek and Namibia, and returned to Victoria Falls and Zimbabwe.
The year was a sign of resurgence for SAA, where, In February, SAA received R1 billion towards settling its historical debt.
On 1 February, the SAA Voyager Programme turned 29. Today, it is regarded as an internationally acclaimed and successful loyalty programme with a database of approximately 1 million members.
In March, SAA Cargo partnered with Menzies Aviation to provide air cargo services at three airports.
On 23 March, a new partnership with AVO was launched – a first on-line shop for Voyager members to convert their Voyager miles to AVO points.
On 1 April, SAA’s codeshare partners included: Emirates Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and Egypt Air.
On 17 April, a new SAA Board was introduced by SAA’s shareholder, the Department of Public Enterprises. The following members were appointed: Mr Derek Hanekom (Chairperson), Ms Fathima Gany, Ms Fundi Sithebe, Mr Mahlubi Mazwi, Adv Johannes Weaond, Professor John Lamola (retained from the previous Board), and Mr Dunisani Sangweni.
In June, the airline won the Skytrax Best Cabin Crew in Africa for 2023 at the annual Skytrax World Airline Awards, as well as second place for Best Airline Staff in Africa.
In July, SAA Voyager revamped the Voyager website, resulting in a simpler and more user-friendly platform.
In August, the airline announced a new codeshare agreement between Lufthansa Airlines and SAA, offering flights to Frankfurt and connecting to a host of European destinations.
In September, SAA Voyager announced its partnership with Airport Parking Joburg (APJ).
October represented a watershed month for SAA. Not only did the airline launch its first intercontinental flight to São Paulo since it took to the skies again, but it also took delivery of another two leased A320s to boost its domestic fleet.
From 1 November, the implementation of a visa waiver agreement between the governments of South Africa and Ghana for ordinary passport holders allowed South African and Ghanaian travellers to travel visa-free to each other’s countries. As such, SAA flies between Johannesburg and Accra three times a week.
SAA celebrates its 90th anniversary.
Voyager turns 30. Voyager members collect miles with SAA and its partners and can spend these miles on more than 30 airline partners, including the Star Alliance global network, on non-airline awards which include Uber rides and Uber Eats, retail awards, and more, as well as on car rentals.