Goats on a plane – Santaco Airlines and Government

Sep 19, 11 Goats on a plane – Santaco Airlines and Government

The South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) is taking on a whole new market: air travel. South Africa will soon have a new wholly black-owned, low-cost, commercial airline. Zuma has hailed the new airline as “a practical example of economic and social emancipation”. Others have also welcomed the idea of affordable air travel for the majority. There are some (DA) concerns about the airworthiness of the chosen operator, but on the whole, the enterprise seems set to go ahead.

The first interesting thing about Santaco Airlines is the choice of routes. From the start, the taxi industry has said that the airline is intended to cater for those passengers who currently travel their long-distance taxi routes. The first routes of the airline will be between Lanseria, Johannesburg and Bhisho. Assuming the decision to launch this route has been based on market research and not just on wishful thinking, and it seems prudent to assume that at this point, this move suggests that travel between the Eastern Cape and Gauteng is popular enough, and popular enough with enough people who have money, to support the huge commercial expense of setting up an airline. The volume of people is important – a few wealthy people would justify more expensive SA Express routes to the area; a very low-cost airline requires volume to break even. This raises some interesting questions about the socio-economic status of those from the ‘poorest province in the country’. The Eastern Cape spends a lot of time painting itself (and being painted) as a province falling apart because people are so poor. Apparently there are enough people in the province who can afford basic airfares (or at least enough going home for the holidays) to justify the cost of an airline. Perhaps broad economic development is starting to happen for at least some of the people in the Eastern Cape?

Bhisho and Lanseria are an interesting choice for another reason: they are not ACSA airports. There was lots of talk around the World Cup last year about whether ACSA charges airlines excessive fees. Is the decision to use non-ACSA airports for a super-low-cost airline an indication that this might be true? Bhisho Airport isn’t particularly well-known. Originally built to the glory of homeland leaders (yet another Ciskei white elephant), it has been upgraded over the past few years but hasn’t been commercially operational for ages. Most recently it was doing duty as a police air-wing training facility and personal landing strip for suspect Eastern Cape government travel. The airport is marginally closer to the Eastern Cape capital than East London Airports. Whether it will be preferred by travellers remains to be seen. Santaco Airlines also plans to set up routes to and from Mtata.

On a completely different note, Santaco has indicated that they would welcome goats on their planes, so that should make for some entertaining flights.

But the really interesting point is government’s full-throated support for Santaco Airlines. What is the role of government in developing transport systems? South Africa’s history has left a physical urban-spatial reality of inequality. Public long-distance passenger transport infrastructure is in a dismal state. Trains used to be the low-cost veins and arteries of South African industry. These days they’re unreliable, inconvenient and not particularly safe. The parastatal airline is a reasonable option for business travel or those with money but is far out of reach for the majority of travellers. Buses and taxis carry a high risk of death on the roads.

Private investment in the transport industry isn’t a bad thing. A black-owned airline isn’t a bad thing either – in fact it’s great. But the taxi industry is weakly regulated and rumoured to be a lucrative source of extra income for civil servants and elected officials. The R100 million to set up Santaco Airlines came mostly from membership fees – fees paid by taxi owners/operators using profits from an industry where record keeping isn’t a high priority. It’s great to see real black economic empowerment, shouldn’t the government also be thinking about ways to invest in and support safe, affordable transport options for everyone, rather than focusing all their attention on celebrating the expansion of the taxi industry into the skies?

Image by shaggyshoo