South African Airways (SAA) is temporarily reintroducing the Boeing 747-400 into its scheduled network, reversing its decision last year to permanently ground the aircraft type.

A spokeswoman for the Star Alliance carrier confirms SAA will again operate 747-400s on some scheduled flights between its Johannesburg hub and Lagos in Nigeria starting tomorrow. She says the 747 will only be used on two weekly flights on the Johannesburg-Lagos route "for an interim period until the airline is in the position to expand its current fleet".

SAA has been looking to lease three additional widebody aircraft since unveiling a new fleet plan in May. But it has not yet secured the additional widebodies, which are required to support a short-term requirement until new aircraft are delivered.

The carrier says it is now evaluating proposals from Airbus and Boeing for new widebodies which it hopes will be delivered from 2010.

SAA removed the 747-400 from scheduled services last year after deciding to phase out the type as part of a restructuring plan. The carrier has since returned three 747-400s to their lessors and has been trying to sell or sub-lease the rest of the fleet.

So far SAA has been able to find new homes for all but the last two aircraft. SAA earlier this year decided to wet-lease one of these aircraft to TAAG Angola Airlines, which needed an aircraft for its daily Luanda-Lisbon service because an EU ban precludes it from using its own aircraft. The second remaining SAA 747-400 will now be reactivated to support the Johannesburg-Lagos route.

According to the schedule on SAA's website, the 747-400 will be used for two weekly flights on the Johannesburg-Lagos route until at least the end of March while Airbus A340s will continue to be used on the other two weekly flights SAA offers on the route. The SAA spokeswoman says the "re-use of the 747-400 on this route will act to fulfil the huge demand for business class seats in this market".

SAA's 747-400 fleet, which stood at 10 aircraft before two aircraft were returned in 2006, was for years the backbone of the carrier's London Heathrow operation. But SAA last year switched all Heathrow flights to the A340.

At about the same time it also stopped operating the 747-400 on select intra-Africa flights. Historically SAA used the 747-400 to fly to London at night and would use it during the day for some high demand African routes, including Lagos and Luanda, and even occasional domestic services on peak days.

The reintroduction of the 747-400 is a bit strange as SAA has been touting the benefits of phasing out the type in favour of an all-A340 widebody fleet. Earlier this year SAA said the grounding of the entire 747 fleet would save the airline 600 million rand ($60 million) in the current fiscal year, which runs through March 2009.

The airline also has said the grounding is one of the main points of its ongoing restructuring, which began in 2007 is scheduled to be completed in March 2009. Seabury, which SAA hired in early 2007 to help with the restructuring, identified early on in the process that phasing out the 747 would help the carrier cut costs.

SAA has said its 747-400 operation was inefficient because its fleet was small and payments were high, making the aircraft uncompetitive. Restructuring costs have already been incurred to cover the grounding, including government guarantees worth 1.5 billion rand.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news