Employees of South African Airways (SAA) celebrated their carrier’s admission into the Star Alliance fold with an exuberance that is rarely, if ever, seen at aviation events.
The official ceremony took place in a hangar at Johannesburg airport earlier this month. The place was packed with the great and the good from the alliance and its member airlines – in fact there was an almost 100% turnout of chief executives, the only absentee being new LOT chief executive Krzysztof Kapis, who was at another event at home in Warsaw.
But the majority of the hangar was occupied by SAA staff who had all been invited to attend the ceremony and were determined to enjoy every minute. The ceremony itself was a well-judged balance between formality and entertainment. For example, a speech from SAA chief executive Khaya Ngqula was followed by a rendition of “The lion sleeps tonight” by a group of local opera singers dubbed the “Five Divas”. They also opened the proceedings with the South African national anthem, which has verses in three different languages.
South African flags had been put on all the seats before the ceremony and as the ceremony drew to a close I saw many employees waving them energetically while tears ran down their cheeks.
More technicians, engineers and cafeteria staff joined us outside the hangar to witness a three-aircraft fly past by one SAA A340-600 and two -300s that nearly didn’t happen because of low cloud cover. At the last moment, just when it looked like the event was going to end up in a massive anticlimax, it was decreed that the weather had improved enough for the fly past to take place. The three aircraft that flew overhead, bringing commercial aviation at the airport to a standstill, looked terrifyingly close together from where I was standing, but all was well and they disappeared up back into the clouds to whoops and cheers from the crowd.
Joining the alliance is obviously a matter of huge pride for SAA employees, many of whom, according to Ngqula, worked evenings and weekends to ensure that the carrier met the checklist of issues that had to be addressed prior to membership.