DUE to the political scene in South Africa with sanctions and a siege mentality, the South African skies remained a government affair for many years. Whatever the state owned airline wanted became law. So much so that SAA maintained an office within the Department of Civil Aviation. This monopoly held by SAA was pretty much reflected by the attitude of their staff which displayed little customer care. From the late eighties things began to change and by 1991 the SA government passed legislation deregulating the domestic air service. Trek Airways which was a pioneer in air travel and was operating internationally as Luxavia, took up the challenge on 16 October 1991. Using four brand new A320’s leased from GPA (Guiness Peat Aviation), they became the first airline to directly challenge SAA. - starting with JNB-CPT and JNB-DUR schedules. The aircraft were ZS-NZP “Polaris”, ZS-NZR “Rigel”, ZS-NZS “Sirius” and ZS-NZT “Taurus”.
Trek Airways had done their homework and knew what the traveling public needed. At first they aimed for the Business market but later toned this down a bit.
The emphasis was on customer care and superior onboard service. The Captain even greeted passengers at the aircraft door when boarding! The public soon loved Flitestar and dare I say it, so did the frontline staff at SAA who suddenly had a challenge! The SAA staff found a new pride in their company and enjoyed competing with Flitestar. Things became alive at Jan Smuts Airport and this became a good place to be, no matter which company you worked for. Customers suddenly had staff competing for their business. It was a win, win situation for all.
Flitestar started gaining in popularity, so much so that SAA was forced to withdraw the A300 from regular service, only returning once Flitestar ceased operating.
Flitestar took 25% of the domestic market and were carrying loads of 63%. Unfortunately due to the nature of the beast, SAA still controlled many things and chose to embark on a campaign of dirty tricks.
The only aircraft actually owned by Flitestar were two ATR-72’s bought from Anglo-American and they differed from the normal ATR-72 by having a forward cargo hold which Anglo required.
At first the winglets were white but later the Flitestar emblem was applied in order to make them more visible to drivers of ground support equipment. Winglets being relatively new to the industry and Flitestar being the first user of the A320 in Africa.
During December 1993 rumours within Flitestar indicated that two A320’s would go back to GPA and I saw a fax about spares held by Flitestar being reduced.
It was all very confusing since Flitestar had employed more staff and talks had begun on replacing the A320 Bahrain service with a B767 and also using this aircraft to start a service to the Seychelles and even to replace the B747 service to Luxemburg. On Monday 11th April 1994 Flitestar and Luxavia announced that they would cease operations that very day. No talk of liquidation, just the ending of all operations bar the ATR-72 operations which were planned as a feeder operation for SAA. This carried on for a very brief period until they ceased operations to make way for SA Express.
SAA had paid in excess of R90 million to Trek Airways shareholders, Rentmeester Beleggings, SAFREN and the de Moelenaer family to cease operating “any” airline service in competition with SAA for five years.
Thus even SAFAIR
had to shut down the cargo operation returning two BAe 146 aircraft
to GPA. SAA honoured all the outstanding tickets as part of the agreement
but nothing was done for the thousand staff members who were unemployed.
I will always remember the final A320 flight to JNB when Captain Rautenbach requested and was given permission to do a final fly by. He responded to the tower calling himself the “Fading star” as he switched off the light illuminating the tail. As the passengers disembarked with their “booty” of glasses and bottles of wine etc rattling away in their bags, everyone was in tears, crew, passengers, SAA engineers etc.
A truly sad day for SA aviation and one that I believe will firmly bite SA in the butt one day!
Copyright © Paul Dubois 2006