SAA: Here’s how not to run an airline

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I was in Cape Town when news of the SAA strike broke. Luckily, I was a day ahead of it and I was flying a different airline back home to Joburg.

I travel a lot for my job and fly most of the major airlines, international and local, at least once a year. For most of 2019, I have chosen FlySafair for local flights, in no small part because they are cheap and reliable. And they do a bunch of simple things that make travelling that much easier.

As I walked into the airport on Thursday, my phone buzzed with an SMS giving me the gate details for my flight. I’d already been able to get my boarding pass via WhatsApp, and it was, thankfully, formatted for a mobile phone display, not a bigger computer screen. If I chose to email myself that boarding pass, it comes on an A4 page with a handy configuration that is easily foldable into quarters.

It’s the little things, done well, that make a business work. This is especially true when you’re moving 200 to 300 people in a flying sardine that flies to and from the same destinations (Joburg to Cape Town) several times a day.

The smoothest, easiest, and most punctual local airline I’ve flown on is FlySafair. The newest airline, the upstart that flies the Springboks around the country, is not surprisingly the most innovative.

In trying to establish itself, and build a brand of punctuality, it has set a new standard.

Because it’s good at being on time, it has changed the behaviour of its customers. They know the flight is going to be on time, so they make sure they’re not late. How does FlySafair get its flights to take off on time?

As soon as the plane touches down, the ground crew get all the passengers to line up in the gangway, ready to board. It saves time and it gets its passengers to their destination on time.

I started using them principally because they were much cheaper – and for a business traveller like me – offered a slightly cheaper flight for only cabin luggage. But I noticed immediately how user-friendly their website was, both on a computer and smartphone, and then was pleasantly pleased with all the things I’ve mentioned.

When I got an email – and SMS – reminding me to check-in, it included the six-digit booking code so I didn’t have to manually add that (and my surname) to complete the check-in. Another no-brainer of convenience.

Compare that to the last experience I had of flying and checking into SAA. The website and app are from the dark ages, circa 2010. I’ve often had the problem where I simply can’t check in on mobile – with no reason given – and have to get out my laptop, which takes 15 minutes to do something FlySafair takes me three minutes.

International airlines like Emirates, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific and Singapore (which I have flown in the last year) are a pleasure for web and app use; and offer reams of more useful functionality. Because it’s so bankrupt, SAA can’t afford to update these now essential interfaces for its customers with its flights. It’s the least of its problems, but it’s the one that customers use every day and despair.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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