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South African Airways does not employ 55,500 people

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  • A graphic doing the rounds on the internet claims South African Airways has 58 aircraft, 55,500 employees and 957 employees per aircraft.

  • SAA hasn’t released an annual report in two years. But its 2016/17 report says it had 54 aircraft and 5,752 employees – 107 employees per aircraft.

  • The number of staff per aircraft is a measure of productivity, but doesn’t reflect factors that could influence employee numbers – aircraft type, fleet mix, operations and outsourcing.

A strike at cash-strapped South African Airways (SAA) led to all local flights being cancelled. Employees are demanding higher pay and for planned retrenchments to be scrapped. (UPDATE: The strike was on Friday 22 November 2019 called off.)

The state of the country’s national carrier has been hotly debated online, with a graphic about “the facts” widely shared.

It compares the number of employees at SAA with two other national airlines. 

It claims SAA has 55,500 employees, while Australian airline Qantas has 32,500 and British Airways 36,832.  

Are the numbers for South Africa’s national airline correct? We checked. 

Figure ‘excessively exaggerated’

Our first stop was SAA’s head of media relations, Tlali Tlali. He dismissed the staff figure as “excessively exaggerated”. Experts agreed.

“The figure is definitely wrong,” Stephan Krygsman, associate professor in the Department of Logistics at Stellenbosch University, told Africa Check. Guy Leitch, the editor of SA flyer magazine, described the 55,500 figure as “a pernicious lie”.

Airline employed 5,752 in 2017

The graphic refers to South African Airways. But it does not distinguish between the group and the airline. 

The SAA Group is made up of the national carrier and four subsidiaries: Air Chefs, the low-cost carrier Mango, the South African Travel Centre and South African Airways Technical

The group has failed to publish annual reports for the past two years, so up to date employment figures are not available. Its most recent report, for 2016/17, says the group employed 10,070 people. 

Of these, 5,752 were employed by SAA. The airline had 54 aircraft that year – four fewer than the 58 given in the graphic. This means the airline had an average of 107 employees per aircraft, significantly lower than the 957 cited in the graphic. 

South African Airways group employees (March 2017)
South African Airways5,752
South African Airways Technical2,367
Air Chefs1,237
SA Travel Centre2
Total 10,071

Source: South African Airways

Figures should be compared with caution

The number of employees per aircraft is often used in media reporting, Rose Luke, associate professor in the Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management at the University of Johannesburg, told Africa Check. 

While it is a broad measure of productivity, she said it should “be used with caution as it does not necessarily reflect the many factors that could influence employee numbers”. These include aircraft type, fleet mix, the airline’s operations and whether any services are outsourced.

“It is therefore important that, when using this measure, one is comparing apples with apples,” she said. And it’s not clear that this is the case in the graphic. 

The most recent figures show that the British Airways Group had 42,384 employees in 2018. The Qantas Group had 29,055 employees in 2019. But its freight operation, loyalty programme, low fare airlines and other entities are included in this figure. 

Africa Check has contacted the airlines and experts to confirm which employment figures would be appropriate to compare to SAA. (Note: This report will be updated when we have clarity.)

Conclusion: SAA had 54 aircraft and 5,752 employees in 2017.

A graphic circulating online claims South African Airways, the country’s national airline, employs 55,500 people and has 58 aircraft. This is incorrect. 

The SAA Group, which is made up of the airline and subsidiaries, employed 10,071 people in 2017. More recent figures are not available. The Qantas Group had 29,055 employees in 2019, while British Airways Group had 42,384  in 2018.

When the SAA airline is considered alone, it had 5,752 staff and 54 planes. 

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