South African Airways says the threat of a full-on secondary strike by the country’s aviation unions would “bring all airport operations to a halt and create huge damage to the South African economy”. The South African cabin crew association (SACCA) and NUMSA union which represents some ground-based employees at the national carrier continued a walkout on Sunday while threatening to drag other unions and airlines into the widening dispute.
The unions have demanded an 8 per cent rise and are calling for South African Airways to scrap a plan to make around 944 employees redundant as part of a new cost-cutting and turnaround strategy. The airline says it simply can’t afford the hike in wages the unions have demanded and is instead offering a 5.9 per cent wage increase, along with further negotiations over proposed job losses.
On Sunday, South African Airways reinstated some international flights to five destinations as scheduled – New York, London, Frankfurt, Munich and Washington DC. A sixth flight to São Paulo, Brazil eventually got underway after a delay of several hours. Both regional and domestic flights remain grounded indefinitely but the airline has been rebooking as many passengers onto flights operated by its low-cost subsidiary Mango.
But the use of non-striking crew and specially trained employees to operate these flagship international routes has led to the unions making claims that South African Airways is putting passenger safety at risk. Acting chief executive, Zuks Ramasia strenuously denied the allegations on Sunday evening, saying the claims were “untruthful and unfounded”.
“The unions’ allegations are malicious and represent an unfounded attack, as well as an insult to the Civil Aviation Authority, South African Airways, and South African Airways Technical (SAAT),” Ramasia said in a statement released by the airline.
Threatening legal action against the union, Ramasia continued: “We call on NUMSA and SACCA to retract these untrue and unfounded allegations with immediate effect.”
“If they fail to do so, we will consider taking legal action. We would never put our long-established reputation at risk. The safety of our customers is always our prime responsibility.”
In an update to media, South African Airways reiterated its position that it will not allow any employee who has taken part in the walkout to return to work until the dispute is settled. Security at the airline’s headquarters and other bases has been increased as some employees come under pressure to join the strike.
Mediators got involved in the dispute yesterday but after a long day of talks, the airline is yet to respond to the union’s full demands. A secondary strike would likely ground SAA’s subsidiary Mango and even affect other carriers at the country’s airports. A wider walkout would significantly increase the airline’s current daily losses of around $3.3 million because of the strike.