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A Look at the Roots of South Africa Airlines

by Katongole Andrew

South Africa Airways, SAA, is the South African national air carrier that is yet to celebrate its 87th year of service in aviation industry on 1st February having started operations on the same date in 1934.
Recently, the airlines has been experiencing financial challenges that were worsened by outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic last year. The airlines had also opted to cease operations on certain routes due to it’s long term bankruptcy run, allegedly since 2011. However, the South African government came in with a helping hand and offered R.10 billions to finance and implement the turnaround strategy to dig the SAA out of it’s bankruptcy situation.

It is for the same reason, bankruptcy, that the predecessor of SAA ceased operation in aviation industry. We take a look at the roots of SAA…

Junkers W34 ©Wikipedia

The Predecessor of SAA

The predecessor of SAA was “Union Airways”. This was founded by world war 1 flying ace, Major Allister Miller, in 1929.

Major Allister Miller © South African National Society

The name Union Airways was inspired by the state name, Union of South Africa. Its headquarters were at Fairview in Port Elizabeth, however, later on moved to Stamford Hill in Durban.

The airways had a fleet size of up to eight aircrafts, that is; five DH 60 Gipsy Moths, a Fokker Super Universal single engine aircraft that carried up to six passengers and two DH80A Puss Moths that carried up to two passengers in an enclosed cabin.

The Union Airways entered into service making airmail deliveries on 26th August 1929 and also started passenger flights on 3rd September 1929 with a flight from Cape Town to East London. The airways operated between Cape Town and major centres like Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, East London and Durban. It carried out unscheduled and scheduled mercy flights for sick passengers amidst the increased mail and passenger trafficking in South Africa.

The 1930’s: Union Air Demise

DH60 Moth © Wikipedia

In 1931, there were occurrence of certain incidence that made it hard for the Union Airways to stay in business; like the fatal crash of one Puss Mouth near Sir Lawry’s Pass that killed the pilot and two passengers. This was then followed by the crash of Fokker Super Universal at Kayser’s Beach near East London, fortunately there were no casualties involved. However, the airways made huge losses a thing that is believed to have caused Major Allister Miller sell shares of Union Airways to Junker South Africa Pty (Ltd) that owned South West African Airways (SWAA). The SAA and SWAA amalgamated although they continued to operate under their individual names.

In 1933, Union Airways was hit by another fatal blow when Junkers W34 aircraft crashed near the town of Eshowe killing two crew members, three passengers and only one passenger survived. This forced Major Allister Miller to approach the South African government and requested them to take over Union Airways.

On 1st February 1934, the South African government took over the assets and liabilities of Union Airways and renamed it South Africa Airlines; this was controlled by South African Railways and Harbours administration. And the rest is history – South Africa Airlines is the entity it is known as today!

Would you like a look at the history of South Africa Airlines between 1934-2020? Let us know in the comments below!

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