The new chief executive of South African Airways (SAA), Andre Viljoen, has cut a swath through the executive ranks of the airline less than a month after assuming control. There have been a spate of "resignations", in which Viljoen appears to be putting as much distance as possible between himself and his predecessor, Coleman Andrews. These have seen the departure of the vice-presidents of flight operations and in-flight services, the suspension of the head of the technical division and the merging of domestic and international sales as well as the Voyager frequent flyer programme under one vice-president.

Behind the changes are high levels of staff dissatisfaction which have taken the "passion" out of customer service, says Viljoen. He says his priority is to drastically improve the decline in service which has seen SAA lose the long-standing SA Rugby Football Union contract to British Airways and which comes on the heels of warnings by heavy hitting customers like mining giant Anglo American and oil company Sasol to improve product and service.

"Our organisational structure is mostly dysfunctional. It lacks cohesion and has to be reorganised," he says. "I'm going to build a new structure that will ensure a cohesive focus on strategy, product and its delivery. We've got some of the basics wrong. Heads of departments and the leadership team have to become accountable and their staff learn to deliver service with a passion. I will come down hard on those who won't show passion. We are a service industry and without passion we may as well close our doors."

To this end the airline will announce in May a R700 million ($87.5 million) revamp of its on-board product which will include improvements to aircraft interiors, meals, service and uniforms. Also, he will focus on staff problems and work towards reinstating privileges that have been lost. Although European destinations are SAA's biggest loss-maker, says Viljoen, he does not aspire to offer the same service as, for example, British Airways, SAA's biggest competitor.

"Our product must be on a par with BA, and not an exact crib, although we will also introduce flat beds in business class shortly, we must offer a consistent and warm service that is uniquely South African." By addressing levels of service, Viljoen - who describes himself as a hands-on manager with an eye for detail - hopes to regain premier class passengers on international flights lost to the competition.

He has also warned that SAA may not be as prosperous as many believe following its turnaround. Although he won't be drawn on numbers, Viljoen says the airline will show a profit for the financial year 2002, but adds that there is a "false sense of prosperity among staff".

The 2001/2002 year is going to be difficult, he warns. We are faced with some substantial challenges, the potential of sliding global as well as domestic economic fortunes and the continuing high fuel cost. For years our soft currency has ensured that we've lost millions annually on our overseas routes and although we've managed to halve this in the last two years, due to our codeshare agreements and alliances with other carriers like Swissair, Lufthansa and Delta, there is still room for improvement."

He says that domestically and regionally, where SAA has a critical mass, flights are profitable. But in the international market, where SAA's share is smaller, competitors are earning hard currency on profitable inbound flights and discounting fares outbound to attract passengers away from SAA.

"They are earning hard currency out of a huge market with a good product and we are earning soft currency out of a small market and a lesser product."

Source: Airline Business