This past week the Department of Public Enterprise (DPE) claimed that SAA pilots are, “the second-best paid in the world.” This is an astoundingly crude lie that is evidently false for two reasons…

AFlyer editor Guy Leitch

First – it cited its source as IATA – the International Air Transport Association. IATA was quick to respond; “IATA … distances itself from the false assertion …. that it had compared SAA pilots’ remuneration with those at other airlines. As an industry body, IATA …. may not become involved in individual airlines’ commercial or employment affairs. For this reason, IATA is not privy to such details and has not conducted a comparison of SAA pilots’ remuneration or provided any such information to the Department of Public Enterprises.”
Second – by world standards, SAA pilots are actually low paid. This is readily evident in the (pre-Covid) number of SAA pilots who leave to fly for better pay at other airlines.

The DPE has long tried to promote a narrative that SAA pilots are a cossetted and overpaid white male-dominated bunch of apartheid dinosaurs who are resistant to the transformation of the airline. Close examination of the facts shows that, while this narrative many fall on receptive ears, it is quite simply gross disinformation by the DPE.

A SAA A340

How much are SAA pilots really paid?
By world standards – not much. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the junior pilots who are well paid, while the Senior Captains (dinosaurs?) are noticeably underpaid by world standards, presumably reflecting the reality that it is difficult for a Senior Captain to uproot his life and his seniority at SAA to go and fly for a fast-growing Chinese airline. As one SAA Captain pithily remarked when he and his mates were discussing where else to go fly, “Ja– but if you go there – who you gonna drink beer with?’

Having been locked out and not paid for nine months, some SAA pilots are sufficiently disgruntled to share information regarding their pay. I have discovered that a Junior First Officer who has been with SAA for six years and is a co-pilot on the ‘baby-bus’ Airbus A319, clears a net salary of R75,000 per month. Not bad, you may think.
A Senior Captain with 26 years’ service clears R126,000 per month. This is less than many senior corporate managers, who have far less responsibility and much better working conditions. And notably, after having been with the airline four times as long as the First Officer, the Senior Captain’s pay is just 1.68 times more. Yet the burden of his responsibility as a Commander in charge of 300 lives is enormous, plus the R5-billion value of an Airbus A350.

For many these may seem like good remuneration packages. But SAA only pays R236 per month towards medical aid and the pilots need to provide their own insurance for loss of licence due to medical reasons – which costs upwards of R10,000 per month (for over 50s). And a pilot’s working life is shorter than the average business executive, as SAA pilots have to retire at 63 and so their retirement needs greater provident fund contributions.

The bottom line is that a Senior SAA Captain with children at school or university cannot afford a new car, or to take an overseas holiday without using the pilots’ rebates – which will be removed in the new deal, despite being an important part of sustaining family life for all pilots around the world.

It must also be remembered that there is very little job security. You can easily lose your licence for medical reasons. And twice a year you have to pass recurrency training flight tests. Have a bad day and fail, and you get marked down for more training. Fail after that, and you’re out.
How does this compare to other pilots’ salaries around the world?
Over the years there has been a steady outflow of SAA pilots to the Gulf-3 carriers, Emirates in particular, for the simple reason that the pay is usually 50% greater – and is tax free.

In Europe, a KLM Captain with 26 years’ service will be taking home almost €21,500 each month, and his cost of living is probably cheaper. At just R14/Euro, that’s R300,000 which is more than double the SAA Captain’s take home pay. A Senior First Officer at KLM reports that he takes home €12,000 pm – and that includes his medical insurance.
In China, large and fast-growing privately-owned airlines such as Hainan are paying around 250% of SAA pay rates.

A SAA A320

Almost all SAA pilots are now unemployed. They have not been paid since May, and adding insult to injury, on Friday they were locked-out by the company. After twenty years’ service their typical retirement fund value is R7-million – which is good for R29,200 income per month before tax.
Already 224 SAA pilots have taken the voluntary severance package – yet have not even been paid that, and so are having to cannibalise their retirement funding just to survive. There are currently just 383 pilots left at SAA (in 2010 there were 830), of which 88 are required for the airline to restart. SAAPA says that they have already made multiple concessions. But the big sticking point that has lead to the lockdown is a power play over what SAAPA claims is the unlawful – and unconstitutional – retrenchment of pilots based on race. Quite simply – the DPE wants almost all the 88 pilots who are carried through to the new SAA to be from the previously disadvantaged ‘designated group’. What choosing pilots on the basis of race and not experience will do for fare paying passengers’ perceptions of the airline’s safety can only be guessed.

The campaign in the media against SAA pilots is politically motivated. The DPE has stooped to mendacity to push its line that SAA pilots are overpaid and over-protected, in that it prevents the airline from hiring black pilots. SAAPA says it has made enormous concessions to help the airline emerge from the Covid-19 crisis – including proposing a well-researched business plan that preserves 135 pilot jobs for the same cost to the company as the current 88 jobs. This will make it far easier for the airline to restart operations when (if) if does.

But the DPE persists on scapegoating the pilot body for its own manifold failures and using the collapse of the airline to drive its agenda to force a racially transformed pilot body.