SAA Strike Reverberates Across Africa

July 25, 2005

Bookmark and Share

South African Airways (SAA) was forced to cancel dozens more flights as one of the worst strikes in the airline's history went to a fourth day on Monday, stranding travellers from London to Lusaka.

SAA dispatched planes to pick up waiting passengers in the United States, Switzerland, Britain and Germany under a pre-strike agreement which allowed crews already in those countries to work the return flight.

Many more ticket holders simply scrapped travel plans after a weekend of chaos at South Africa's major airports.

"I'm giving up now... I'm supposed to be on my way to Nairobi on business but I don't think I can make it anymore," one Durban businessman told SABC radio amid a growing chorus of anger over the paralysis of Africa's biggest airline.

SAA cabin crew and ground staff went on strike on Friday after unions and management failed to reach agreement on wages at a final meeting on Thursday. The union is demanding an 8 percent annual wage increase while SAA is offering 5 percent.

Late on Monday, the two parties agreed to seek help from the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in the hope of resolving the dispute.

"The unions have requested more information on the company's offer, specifically why SAA can't afford more than a five percent increase," the airline said in a statement.

"SAA has agreed with the unions to seek the intervention of the CCMA in the interest of the speedy resolution of this impasse."

The strike has forced it to suspend most of its regional and international flights, while airline officials say domestic flights were being assessed on an hourly basis.

At Johannesburg Airport, the country's busiest, officials said the huge queues of desperate passengers that had formed over the weekend were shrinking, in part because people were staying home.

"There is a lot of SAA management on the floor, redeploying passengers and endorsing tickets to other airlines," said Jacqui O'Sullivan of the Airports Company of South Africa.

"We are certainly urging people not to come to the airport until they have confirmation that their flight is departing."

The strike snarled travel across the continent, where the South African airline is the dominant regional carrier.

SAA passenger Veronique Tadjo, who had been due to leave Abidjan for Johannesburg on Friday, finally made it out to Nairobi only to find more problems there.

"Nairobi Airport is chaos, there are queues and people asking to get on flights, the transfer desk is flooded, there are people all over," said Tadjo, who must now fly to Tanzania's Dar es Salaam before finally returning to Johannesburg.

"This is all because of the SAA strike. It is high season... this has really messed up everybody.

The troubles at SAA have proved a boon to other airlines operating in South Africa, which have long flown under its shadow.

"We've carried in excess of 3,500 SAA passengers over the weekend," said Stuart Cochrane, a spokesman for Comair, which runs a domestic service under a franchise deal with British Airways as well as the low-cost carrier

"Our call center is drowning at the moment... we are trying to help, but we certainly can't keep up with the demand."

Kenya Airways, which is seeking to expand its regional profile, was also picking up some of SAA's slack.

"We have helped passengers to East and West Africa, whenever the capacity was available," Kenya Airways spokeswoman Hajila Komora said, adding that the airline was flying bigger jets on some of its routes to help accommodate SAA passengers.