'This is a proud moment': First SAA flight takes off

At this stage, 88 pilots are employed compared to the 600 who had jobs at SAA before the pandemic.

FILE: The state-owned airline went through a business rescue process that resulted in thousands of staff members being retrenched. Picture: @flysaa_care/Twitter

JOHANNESBURG - A South African Airways (SAA) plane took off on Thursday morning for the first time since the airline was grounded more than a year ago.

The state-owned airline went through a business rescue process that resulted in thousands of staff members being retrenched.

At this stage, 88 pilots are employed compared to the 600 who had jobs at SAA before the pandemic.

The aircraft fleet has also been scaled and the airline acknowledges it will take time to rebuild its tattered image.

“This is a proud moment, SAA is launching and restarting today. The first route flying to Cape Town, also starting to fly regional. This is a story of hope, really, that you can be on the ground, but you can be up there in the skies,” said SAA's acting CFO Fikile Mhlontlo.

Once Africa's second-largest airline after Ethiopian Airlines, SAA had survived for decades on government bailouts and was shedding routes even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

The government agreed in June to sell a 51% stake to a group of investors called the Takatso Consortium, opening the way to a potential injection of $200 million (171 million euros).

Even after a state bailout of more than $500 million (426 million euros) and a restructuring of its debt, the airline only emerged from bankruptcy after slashing hundreds of jobs.

In addition to the domestic route that resumed on Thursday, SAA plans to begin regional services next week to Accra, Kinshasa, Lusaka, Harare and Maputo.

Mhlonto said this week that the airline's fleet was down to six planes, from a previous 46.

SAA low-cost subsidiary Mango remains grounded and in bankruptcy proceedings.

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