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South African Airways

South African Airways (SAA), now known simply as 'South African' is South Africa's largest domestic and international airline company. With hubs in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South African is currently one of the few profitable African airlines. It is also known in Afrikaans as Suid Afrikaanse Lugdiens (SAL), although this version of the name no longer appears on the planes' livery.

Humble Beginnings

In 1934, an airline named Union Airways was bought over by South Africa's government, and renamed South African Airways. The first cities served were Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg.

In the 1930s SAA was able to enter the international market with flights to Kenya and Uganda. The slow growth continued during the 1940s, but SAA achieved a longtime company goal by landing a route to Europe for the first time in 1945. And on a historic November day, an Avro York Bomber landed in Bournemouth, England, after the long flight from Palmietfontein.

The Jet Age

The 1950s saw the advent of the jet age with the addition of the Boeing 707 to the airline's fleet. SAA's first plane of this type first landed in England and the rest of Europe in October 1960. Two years later, SAA's jets would allow the airline to fly non stop for the first time ever from South Africa into the U.K. and SAA's other European destinations. In 1971, SAA added the Boeing 747 'Jumbo Jet' to its fleet.

Effect of Apartheid

The next few years would be marked by steady but slower growth. Many countries refused to trade economically with South Africa, and this affected the airline, and while many airlines were growing fast on the international market, SAA's growth rate was far behind most. Many African countries, except South Africa's neighbours, refused to let SAA use their airspace, but by then SAA had acquired a fleet of 'Special Performance' 747s, reducing the need for stopovers.

The only major development the airline had during the 1970s was the opening of a route to Asia, with Boeing 747 flights to Hong Kong being launched. In 1980, SAA began flights to Taipei, South Africa being one of the few countries in the world to still recognise the Republic of China government of Taiwan.

Fiftieth Anniversary

SAA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1984. This was the year that a group of enthusiasts started talking about the possibility of opening a museum dedicated to the airline. In this year the South African government made a controversial decision where it signed a treaty with Somalia to give extensive military aid to the repressive regime of Siad Barre in exchange for an exclusive contract to service Somali air travel. This turned out to be economically unviable since few Somalis could afford airline tickets, and due to the incessant civil disorder in the country, few people wanted to go to Somalia either.

SAA's services to South America were cut back in 1985 because of lack of demand, with services to Buenos Aires stopped, but those to Rio De Janeiro continued.

Owing to international condemnation of the apartheid regime in the late 1980s, SAA itself faced hostility, with its offices and being attacked. its London office was daubed with red paint, while in Harare, Zimbabwe its offices were badly damaged after protesters went on the rampage. In 1987, SAA's services to Perth and Sydney in Australia were ended, in the light of Canberra's opposition to apartheid. On November 27 of that year, tragedy struck the airline, when a 747 flying from Taipei to Johannesburg crashed in the Indian Ocean, near Mauritius, killing all its passengers and crew.

During that year, the South African Airways Museum, with different artifacts and even an old aeroplane donated by the airline, opened its doors to the public at Johannesburg International Airport.

End of the 'Pariah Airline'

With the demise of apartheid beginning 1990, SAA was now able to shake off its pariah image, restoring services to old destinations, introducing services to new ones, and expanding into the rest of Africa, and into Asia. June 1 of 1990 was also an important day for SAA, as South African companies signed a domestic air travel deregulation act. Later this year, SAA was chosen as the Best Airline to Africa by London magazine Executive Travel.

1991 saw the arrival of SAA's first A320 jet, and its first 747-400 jet, nicknamed the Durban. The airline resumed flights to New York for the first time since the United States imposed economic sanctions on South Africa in 1986, and South African's planes were able to fly for the first time over Egypt and Sudan

1992 saw South African enter the Miami market (from Cape Town) by flying into Miami International Airport, and re-enter Australia. This year also saw code sharing agreements with American Airlines and Air Tanzania. That year also saw direct flights to Southeast Asia including Bangkok and Singapore.

1993 was the year Manchesterandand Hamburg entered the route system, and a code sharing agreement was reached with Brazil's Varig.

In 1994, South African became a 25 percent owner of a company named Sax, and a feeder service (SAA Express) began flying domestically. This year saw the birth of the airline Alliance, which was a partnership between SAA, Uganda Airways and Air Tanzania. Also South African greeted its passengers in four different languages during domestic flights: English, Zulu, Afrikaans and Sotho, while passengers on international flights were also greeted in the destination's local language too.

In 1995, Lufthansa started a code sharing agreement with SAA, and SAA commanded Herdbuois Diefenbach Elkins to lead South African's change of image. This year, South African's Vogager and American's AAdvantage frequent flier clubs joined together.

1996 saw flights to Singapore discontinued, with Bangkok becoming an Asian hub for the airline. This year, South African Olympic athletes were carried to Atlanta aboard 747 Ndizani and SAAwon Executive Travel's best airline to Africa award for the third time.


In 1997, SAA introduced its new image and livery, dropping the springbok emblem, and the old national colours of orange, white and blue. The new livery was based upon the new national flag,with a sun. The airline was now known simply as 'South African', with the Afrikaans name Suid-Afrikaanse Lugdiens being dropped. In addition to the airline started online ticket sales, SAA, SAA Airlink and SAA Express formed a new alliance.

1998 saw services to Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo's Guarulhos Airport restored, services to Copenhagen's Kastrup Airport stopped, and a new airline President in the figure of Coleman Andrews.

1999 was the Year South African and Delta Airlines started code sharing on flights from Atlanta to South Africa. Those flights took place on South African Airways planes.

2000 saw South African arrive at Ft. Lauderdale's Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and order 21 more Boeing 737s for its domestic routes.

In 2001, South African won the Best Cargo Airline to Africa award from Air Cargo News - (even though South African is mostly a passenger airline) - and South African Airways signed a code sharing agreement with Nigeria Airways, to provide service from the United States to Lagos, using South African 747s. The airline earned a spot on the Zagat Surveys top ten international airlines list, opened a new website and named Andre Viljoen as Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

In March 2002, under CEO Andre Viljoen, South African Airways has asked Airbus Industrie to overhaul its fleet at a cost of $3.5 billion. SAA has is for nine A340-600 widebodies, six A340-300s, 11 A319s and 15 A320 aircraft. Three of the A340-600 aircraft will come from International Lease Finance Corp. These new Airbus aircraft are to replace the aging Boeing fleet, as well as the recently ordered Boeing 737-800's, over a period of 8 to 9 years.

In late 2002, South African Airways has made a successful bid for a 49 per cent stake in Air Tanzania. This is the first acquisition of a forein airline for SAA.

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