South Africa’s government is appealing to individual South African Airways pilots to break from their union’s position and accept voluntary severance packages, as the beleaguered airline faces a critical creditor vote on its proposed rescue.

Cockpit union SAAPA has put forward alternative proposals intended to reduce retrenchments and increase the number of personnel retained for a restructured and relaunched carrier.

But the government’s department of public enterprises views these proposals as an attempt by pilots to hold on to lucrative employment benefits at the expense of other SAA staff.

It dismisses the submissions as “misleading” and an “optical illusion”, appearing to create attractive terms for some staff while placing the financial risk on the remaining personnel.

The department claims that the pilots’ proposals are based on a premise that the airline is competitive and profitable, rather than insolvent and facing liquidation.

“[We are] disappointed that it has not dawned on the pilots that SAA is financially depleted, that the airline is in business rescue and fighting for its survival,” it adds.

The department is pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy by urging individual pilots to “reject” the union’s demands and back the voluntary severance offered.

Creditors will vote on the business rescue plan on 14 July and the department insists this is the “only realistic path” to restructure the carrier.

“Cabinet has expressed its support for the concerted effort to mobilise funding from various sources to finance the business rescue plan, including from potential equity partners,” it adds.

It reiterates that a further delay to the vote – already postponed from 25 June – puts the severance benefits at risk, along with the plans to retain 1,000 staff for the new airline.

If creditors vote against the plan, SAA will face liquidation, the department stresses.

Over 5,740 creditors are listed by the business rescue practitioners as holding a voting interest in the plan.

But realistically a small number of banks hold by far the greatest influence in the vote. Some 68% of the voting interest is held by six financial organisations including DBSA and Nedbank with close to 17% each, ABSA with over 14%, Standard Bank with 7.8%, Investec with 7.5%, and FirstRand with just under 5%.