Interview: South African Airways – Growth through Partnerships

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South African Airways (SAA) is arguably the most talked about airline on the African continent. So its no surprise that its descent into business rescue but particularly its re-emergence as a new airline in 2021 made for continental aviation highlights. A subsequent partnership agreement with Kenya Airways with a bullish intent to form a pan-African airline group added to what was a curious highlight reel for Africa’s 2021.

Simon Newton-Smith, the airline’s interim executive – commercial operations is a renowned aviation expert who previously served SAA in 2000 as Vice President, Sales in North America. His aviation journey includes a stint at Virgin Atlantic Airways as Vice President, Sales in North America and Country Manager in South Africa, and with Qatar Airways as Senior Vice President, Commercial Strategy.

On the latest episode of the Aviadev insight Africa podcast, he joined Jon Howell for a thought-provoking discussion on the new SAA, how it views its place in the current aviation landscape and its future.

According to Newton-Smith, the airline is putting  ego aside as it rebuilds for a brighter future, taking on a pragmatic approach in order to achieve business sense.

Covid Pandemic

SAA has returned to an aviation world that has been redefined by the covid pandemic, with the business of travel taking on new approaches as airlines around the world fight for survival. The airline’s route strategy has taken on board the pains of flying in a pandemic and embraced the new trends in travel. Newton-Smith in his conversation points to the importance of South Africa’s large domestic market to SAA’s pathway to growth in a pandemic. Global data shows that regions with large domestic markets are experiencing a quicker rebound and recovery from the crisis. The domestic footprint is also important to providing connectivity and complimenting a growing list of partners

Routes and Destinations

The plan is to enter destinations that are showing an upward trajectory in demand. This underscores SAA’s focus on data and numbers backed planning for network expansion. Covid is the common denominator and the executive says that the airline will work to avoid cross-border complexities arising from restrictions on travel.

While SAA’s fleet is still small, the airline is intent on pursuing routes that commercially compliment its aircraft. “We have to find price points that are competitive and sustainable for the airline” the executive says

But numbers remain the underlying drivers for the airline’s route strategy with ease of travel defining decisions on destination. The past 18 months have shown that airports with easier access and less complications for travelers have fared better in attracting airlines. SAA is considering destinations and airports with lower barriers to demand according to Newton Smith


The pandemic has eradicated some of the fundamentals of the aviation sector and business as usual simply has no place in today’s world of travel

Simon Newton-Smith is a firm believer in “growth through Partnerships” and this will define the course of the new SAA going forward. The strategic partnership with Kenya Airways will consume all the headlines but the executive reaffirms that there are others such as the one with Cemair that are hugely complimentary.

SAA-KQ Partnership

It is all about connectivity. “the goal is to connect the airline’s networks ……and capitalize on the broader integration agenda comprising initiatives such as the Yamoussoukro decision in order to keep Africa moving forward” – the SAA executive says

Africa presents a huge opportunity’ he adds,….. with a huge gap between capacity on offer and the population. Indeed this continent of over 1 billion, more than 10% of the world’s population only forms less than 3% of the global air traffic.

The SAA-KQ partnership is however not a closed door to other airlines


The airline aspires to achieve its previous fleet size and more but Newton-Smith warns that its all about timing and “nothing is off the table”


On the airline’s top priorities going forward, Simon Newton-Smith says  the focus is on “Rebuilding SAA successfully, protecting the tax payer’s money…. And that its is also important to keep SAA on the map while being a resource rather than a threat to other airlines on the continent”

You can listen to the full conversation on the Aviadev Insight Africa podcast below:





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