Planes
  • The pandemic has not been easy on airlines in South Africa.
  • Those that don't make it through will join a long list of local airlines that operated for anything from one day to more than forty years before failing.
  • From 1time to Santaco air, here are nine airlines that didn't cut it in South Africa.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Several lasted only a year or two – and one only managed a single "proof of concept" flight. But South Africa has also seen well-established airlines go belly-up overnight, or fade away as the world changed around them. 

The coronavirus, and associated travel restrictions, have played havoc with airlines, which have had to scramble to stay ahead of rapidly-changing local and foreign regulations, leaving frustrated the paltry few who still want to fly.

See also | SA airlines clipped by lockdown – here’s who's still flying

Mango and SAA may, or may not, survive in their current form. SA's newest airline, Lift, chose a difficult time to get off the ground. Kulula may start flying again in September.

Those that do not make it through the pandemic years will join a long list of South African airlines that fell to predatory peers, high fuel costs, and changing circumstances.

Here are nine of South Africa's most prominent and storied former airlines.

1time

In November 2012, 1time left passengers stranded in Zimbabwe and Zanzibar on a month-end Friday after what it described as a valiant effort to keep flying – which ended in an abrupt liquidation.

1time had a longer run than some of its peers in South Africa, well over eight years in the air. With a dozen planes it was a substantial competitor to Kulula.com, where one of its founders cut his teeth. A rise in the cost of jet fuel left it unable to service its debts, though there was a lot of criticism after its demise about inefficiencies, bloated headcounts, and bad fundamental choices such as using planes cheap to lease but expensive to run. 

Fly Blue Crane

(Photo: Lucky Nxumalo)

In 2015, Fly Blue Crane launched with a focus on serving secondary cities with small jets: Kimberley, Bloemfontein, Nelspruit, and later Mthatha. Its pricing was aggressive, and its CEO, Siza Mzimela, had run SAA for a couple of years.

But a year into operation – and after some sudden and deep price cuts by competitors – it was in business rescue, never to re-emerge. 


Skywise

(Skywise)

Skywise was largely created by former 1time founders, who proceeded to struggle for years with licensing issues before it could actually take off in February 2015. (It later spiked the wheel of the then upstart FlySafair with a complaint about regulatory paperwork.)

By October of the same year it was grounded again, temporarily, having failed to pay the Airports Company of SA (Acsa). By December it was out of the air for good, having not quite made it to ten months.

Sun Air

Sun Air
(Photo by user Nolween, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Sun Air managed to go bust twice in the space of a couple of years, after a pretty weird history overall.

When the Bantustans were dissolved, Bophuthatswana's airline, then Bop Air, technically became the property of the North West province. It was privatised in 1997, and ended up in the hands of SAA – which years later paid a no-fault R14 million settlement to its liquidators, who accused SAA of what amounted to the corporate equivalent of murder.

Three years after its 1999 liquidation, the Sun Air name and three of its planes were put to use for a business service between Johannesburg's secondary airport Lanseria, and Cape Town. That version was liquidated in 2004.

Velvet Sky

Velvet Sky
(Photo by Mark D Young via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

At launch in March 2011, Velvet Sky tried to differentiate itself as being based in Durban, taking advantage of the then still sparkly new King Shaka International Airport.

Its fleet count hit four planes before it stranded passengers after not paying its maintenance and fuel bills by early the next year. 

Trek Airways

Trek Air
Trek Airways postcard of B707 A postcard featuring a model of a Trek plane. (Image: SAA Museum Society collection, via TrekAirways.co.za)

A 2007 book about Trek, by its chairperson for 25 years, describes it as "A South African Adventure" – about "one of the most successful private airlines in South Africa in the twentieth century."

By many metrics, Trek was indeed successful. It ran an international service, to several European destinations, in the only real competition to SAA for a long time. It stuck around, in different guises, for four decades after its first flight in 1953, something many modern peers can only hope to attain. It navigated a highly regulated space, where governments fiercely protected their flag carriers.

It was also successful in the sense that it played a small role in propping up Apartheid, using a "franchise" agreement with Luxembourg Airlines to effectively disguise its planes, and so dodge sanctions-related restrictions that included bans on flying over other African countries.

It did not succeed in surviving the transition to democracy, though, shutting down in 1994, including in its guise as Flitestar.

Flitestar

Luxair and Flitestar
(Image by Bob Adams via Instagram, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Flitestar, or more technically correct Trek Airways Flitestar, was Trek's attempt to take advantage of a fast-liberalising market in the early 1990s, as South Africa's economy modernised alongside the dismantling of Apartheid.

At peak it claimed 25% of the domestic scheduled airline market and represented, or so those involved later said, sufficient a threat for SAA to use dirty tricks against it, including physically parking it its planes to make them late.

Flitestar was liquidated in 1994, along with the rest of the Trek organisation.

Nationwide Airlines

Nationwide Airlines
(Image by MilborneOne via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nationwide was yet another airline that blindsided agents and customers when it suddenly stopped flying in April 2008, after bootstrapping from a cargo charter operator to full scheduled airline in the early 2000s.

Even as no-frills airlines were elbowing their way into the market, Nationwide bragged about its leather seats and free booze, and pushed staff to offer a personal touch that customers would not soon forget. 

It worked; by the time it was grounded, Nationwide was operating some 50 flights a day, including to London.

A court would later describe as its "death knell" the euphemistically phrased "'separation of an engine" from a Nationwide 737 as it took off from Cape Town, in November 2007. The plane landed safely, but the incident made international headlines, and the brand never recovered.

Its demise wasn't quite that simple, though. SAA was later fined more than R100 million for a scheme in which it poured money into the pockets of travel agents to disadvantage its rivals, as Nationwide complained to authorities. 

Santaco Airlines

In 2011, then minister of transport Sibusiso Ndebele said the launch of an airline by the SA National Taxi Council (Santaco) had left some green with envy, and others simply disbelieving.

Political support, at least, Santaco Airlines never lacked; its "proof of concept" flight from Johannesburg to Bisho featured then President Jacob Zuma as a passenger. Its 10,000 taxi-owner shareholders would truly democratise flying, said Santaco.

But those who failed to believe in "taxi air" turned out to be right. It larger emerged the organisation had rented a plane, repainted it, and made uniforms, but had only booked the one flight

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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