2017: The Best & Worst
Each year, at this time, I take the opportunity to look back at the past year. For general aviation, 2017 has been the equivalent of having flown into a thunderstorm. The convulsions of the South African state and its kleptocratic government affect us all. It threatens to rip the wings off SAA and has resulted in many of the smaller aviation companies cowering on the ground, fearful to take their businesses higher, into the raging storm of political and economic uncertainty.
Business confidence has been battered. As I write this, we have just been given yet another junk status downgrade. Investors are sitting on their hands, waiting for the dawn to come – as surely it shall.
Unlike businesses which provide basic needs, such as food and cell phones, the aviation industry is a delicate thing, with high capital costs and fragile margins. Recreational pilots are flying less, which means less fuel and maintenance spend. That means less money going around the industry – and everybody hurts.
THE BIG PICTURE
But elsewhere in the world, things are going pretty well. Airbus and Boeing have huge order books.
In America the airlines are still making super profits – and treating their passengers with ever more disdain. Pax are no longer mere self-loading cargo – they are now treated like cattle to be herded on and off planes, and wrangled and prodded. Maybe the free market is not all it’s cracked up to be – we are not seeing an improvement in service and a lowering of costs with more options for those prepared to pay for better seats and service. Instead we, the passengers, are locked into a race to the bottom by the airlines to get as much money out of their pax, for as little service as possible.
Bizjets are booming for the rich, and trains and busses are an increasingly attractive option – especially in Europe.
On the subject of bizjets, the big news is that they are leading the way back to the supersonic future. All that has to happen is the law-makers have to get over their 1950s notion of sonic booms. I hear that the latest supersonic designs make more of a rumble than the characteristic double crack that farmers claim aborts their cows.
Talking about supersonic, South Africa lost one of its true giants with the untimely passing of Mike Beachy-Head from a heart attack. His collection of supersonic fighters and bombers is standing forlorn without him to fly them and is waiting for a collector with money to burn. When he put four Lightnings in the air for the AAD airshow in Cape Town in 2006, we didn’t realise what an extraordinary accomplishment it was. And he brought the rich and famous to South Africa for time-to-climb records in the Lightnings – or fearsome ‘bomb runs’ through the Hottentots Holland Mountains in the Buccaneers.
This has indeed been the year for aviation extremes. Setting an altitude record was the exact opposite of a supersonic fighter – the Airbus Perlan II glider. Building on what Steve Fossett achieved, the Perlan II broke the world record for a glider flight as it soared to 52,172 feet. Jim Payne and co-pilot Morgan Sandercock flew from Comandante Armando Tola International Airport (how’s that for a mouthful of a name?) in El Calafate, Argentina. It required great skill for the Perlan pilots to harness the massive mountain wave conditions and combine them with a high altitude polar vortex in their pumped-up glider.
On the other end of the spectrum, something that apparently won’t require any skill at all, is to hop in an ‘uber-drone’ to fly around the cities. Dubai is pioneering these pilotless drones – but I don’t know if I would be too keen on regularly chancing my luck on their silicon brain and GPS reception. [In his as usual excellent column this month, Mike Gough gives us some fresh insights as to how far we really are from pilotless airliners.]
The skill of human pilots is nowhere more needed than in the scheduled air service that Airlink has laid on to St Helena Island. This is a route that gave ace aerobatic pilot, Larry Beamish, a heart stopping moment when the windshear rolled him hard left on short final for the island’s spectacular Runway 20. He said the conditions were so rough that the Challenger they were flying was alternating between stall warning stick shaker and configuration overspeed warning. When ex-Mirage pilot and now Comair Head of Flight Ops, Martin Louw, flew it in a Boeing 737-800, they decided the conditions were just too demanding to provide a reliable scheduled air service to the island. Thus, for a year, the island’s ‘Saints’ had to glumly look at their white elephant of a runway that no airline wanted to use. That was until Airlink decided that they could do it with their nimble new Embraer E190, which can, if necessary, land downwind on the 1,950-metre runway. But it will require a cool hand on the ram’s horn yoke to reliably land the E190s there, through all kinds of windy weather.
If they have passed the point of no return to St Helena, and they can’t land because of the wind – or any other reason – they are going to have to plaintively ask the Ascension Island military base if they can lob the Embraer in there and put the pax up in what will presumably be barracks.
2017 was a year of big news for Airlink. CEO Rodger Foster surprised us all by announcing that they were kind of taking over Safair – or maybe it’s a merger? Either way, it provides some useful consolidation in the airline industry and might suggest that FlySafair was struggling against tax-payer subsidised competitor SAA. It’s worth pointing out again that SAA flies six million passengers and makes a R4 billion loss each year. So we, the taxpayers, are subsidising R660 towards each airline seat on SAA. This is money that should be spent on education or housing.
SAA remains the elephant in the room. But SAA pilots are not allowed to say that, or any other animal analogies after an embarrassing misunderstanding when managers accused a white training captain of racism for calling them ‘elephants in the room’. (He was actually referring to management as elephants).
Meanwhile, we have been treated to the now familiar sight of a new board ushering in yet another new CEO, Vuyani Jarana. And so hopes get raised that just maybe this time we have a CEO who can actually turn the airline around. Jarana is a R10 million a year wunderkind from the telecoms industry, but whether he will have the bravery and institutional support to hack out the rotten core of corruption and dead wood in that monstrously dysfunctional airline remains to be seen. We have all seen the movie a few times, where the hero is defeated and leaves after a year with a nice fat termination package.
Thanks to the banks finally flexing their muscles and demanding the removal of catastrophic SAA Chairman Myeni before they lend the airline any more money, we can at least all sing, “The wicked witch is gone!” Yet there is nothing that makes this new board and CEO different from any of its predecessors – except that this time, the new CEO has even less aviation experience. We can only hope for the best, while Minister Gigaba – our very own designer label socialist – rules out any chance of doing the obvious and privatising the airline. The more I study it, the more the arguments against privatisation don’t hold water, especially in the face of R25 billion in losses so far.
Much as though I would love to get off the page of this look back at the year without having to comment on the CAA’s performance, I cannot, as there is just so much happening.
The industry is hurling abuse at the regulator (often via me) for appalling lapses of service and judgement. Amongst the many complaints I receive, just from the training industry, are that flying schools are producing commercial pilots without instrument ratings – or losing students to American flight schools, and the foreign students necessary for the flying schools’ survival are being prevented from getting visas by CAA bureaucracy. Vastly experienced Designated Examiners are being arbitrarily stripped of their status on the whim of capricious, or possibly resentful, inspectors, and when challenged legally, the CAA gives up on the steps of the courthouse and wastes hundreds of thousands in unnecessary legal costs.
Yet Director Poppy Khoza runs a tight ship. She deservedly wins prizes for the best performing institution, achieves unqualified audits, and is being internationally recognised. More importantly, there are signs the dysfunctional organisation she heads is improving. Their cooperation with industry on the introduction of Part 93 regulations for the bizjet industry has created an amicable solution. And even more promising is that she tells me she’s expanding the focus of the CAA, from not just being about safety and security, but also recognising the need to actually encourage and develop the industry. Hope springs eternal.
Like I said – its darkest before the dawn. Already there are rays of light peeping above the horizon.