South African Airways open to joining Etihad’s airline group

Acting CEO visits emirate to promote launch of daily flights from Johannesburg to Mumbai via Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi: South African Airways would join Etihad Airways’ airline group as long as there is “no major conflict” with its existing partners, acting chief executive Nico Bezuidenhout told Gulf News on Monday.

It would be a major coup for Etihad to sign up South African Airways, the largest airline in Africa, to its group, Etihad Airways Partners. So far the only airlines to join are those tied to Etihad by equity stakes.

Etihad holds significant stakes in members Air Berlin, Air Seychelles, Air Serbia and Jet Airways. It is seeking regulatory approval to take a stake in another member, European regional carrier Darwin Airline (operating as Etihad Regional), Meanwhile the only other member, Austrian carrier Niki, is a subsidiary of Air Berlin.

“If it does not spoil the party on one of our other arrangements, we would cooperate,” said Bezuidenhout in Abu Dhabi.

South African Airways is a member of Star Alliance, one of the world’s largest airline alliance groups, which includes Lufthansa, a vocal critic of Etihad, and other Gulf airlines.

Bezuidenhout was in the emirate on Monday to promote the launch of daily South African Airways flights from Johannesburg to Mumbai via Abu Dhabi. The airline has launched the route as a codeshare with Etihad, replacing a direct Johannesburg-Mumbai services, as part of a 90-day turnaround to find 1.3 billion rand ($113 million) in annual savings.

Despite not being a member of Etihad’s group and having not held “detailed discussions” on joining, Bezuidenhout said South African Airways is already benefiting from membership advantages.

Members of Etihad Airways Partners codeshare on each other’s flights and save costs on joint procurement and through use of Etihad’s training facilities in Abu Dhabi.

South African Airways and Etihad have codeshared on each other’s flights since 2013. As part of the rerouted Mumbai service, South African Airways now codeshares on 15 Abu Dhabi-India routes with Etihad and Jet Airways, including to new destinations Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Madras.

Bezuidenhout said the airline was also “cooperating on reviewing aspects of joint procurement” and “leveraging procurement.” He added that he expected the two airlines would soon supply inflight catering to each other from their respective hubs in Johannesburg and Abu Dhabi and also start cooperating on cargo operations.

Asked about joint fleet procurement — South African Airways needs to replace at least 10 Airbus A340s in the next two years — Bezuidenhout said it had not been discussed but was “a logical area to look at.”

Equity stake

Reports last December quoting Bezuidenhout that said Etihad has an “option” to buy a stake in South African Airways were inaccurate, he said, with the decision ultimately resting with the airline’s shareholder, the South African government. However, Bezuidenhout said “Middle Eastern carriers are typically well suited to end-of-hemisphere carriers.”


South African Airways’ long-term relationship with Emirates may soon be renegotiated, according to comments from Bezuidenhout. The two airlines have an existing codeshare agreement with Emirates operating 49 weekly flights between Dubai and Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. A fourth daily flight between Dubai and Johannesburg added last October by Emirates has been disputed by South Africa’s transport department, who argue it was wrongly awarded.

Bezuidenhout said the codeshare agreement needs to be “more balanced.” South African Airways does not operate its own services to Dubai. He said the South African airways would continue to work with Emirates “provided that of course it remains for mutual benefit.”

“We would like to see a more balanced approach,” he said suggesting greater joint-marketing initiatives.