The 747SPs had been instrumental in allowing SAA to avoid the worst impacts of the overflight ban imposed by much of Africa against it. The type had allowed non-stop services to destinations like London for the first time, but by the 1980s they were no longer competitive against full size Jumbos, which had caught up in terms of range and offered more attractive seat/mile costs.
By this time South Africa was firmly on the road to abolishing apartheid (it was repealed on June 17, 1991). This opened up markets to SAA that had been unavailable and for long-range services the carrier was able to acquire four new Boeing 747-444s to operate them. The first aircraft, ZS-SAV, landed in Johannesburg on January 19, 1991.
The 400s tookover the prestige services from the 747SPs, several of which were leased out for varying periods, but the short Jumbo would remain in operation with SAA until mid-2003. 1991 saw the reintroduction of New York services and the launching of routes to Milan and Athens. The next year Cape Town-Miami was inaugurated and Perth in Australia restarted. Expansion on international services continued with the addition of Bangkok, Singapore and Munich in 1992. 1993 saw Hamburg, Larnaca and Tel Aviv join the route map and in 1994 Sao Paulo, Hong Kong and Dusseldorf (the latter replacing Hamburg).
As 1996 dawned SAA was struggling with a series of systematic and existential issues. The Rand to USD exchange rate was poor, fuel prices were high, increased international and domestic competition had a major impact on profitability, service was so-so and the airline offered relatively high fares. The airline lost money alarmingly from 1996 onwards. By 1998 the situation was desperate and a new management team was brought in under the leadership of Coleman Andrews.
Delays to the 777s had by then already led SAA to increase its 747 fleet. It reactivated a 747SP and acquired a pair of ex-Singapore Airlines 747-312s, however internal disagreements meant that two new 747-444s were delayed. Delivery was initially planned for October 1997 but instead they arrived in July and October 1998.
By the time the last 747-444s joined Andrews’ team was in place. Rather than take up the much delayed 777s he preferred to standardise on 747s, which although older were cheaper to acquire and operate (due to maintenance and pilot commonality). South African’s first four 747-400s were all powered by the Rolls-Royce RB211-524H, but when the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis struck SAA gained the opportunity to acquire a pair of white tail 747s to add to the two extra orders for a total fleet of eight.
The two additional 747s were series 4F6s built for Philippines but not taken up. They differed significantly from the six series 444s as they were fitted with General Electric CF6-80C2B1F engines. The last 747-400, ZK-SBS, joined the fleet on December 30, 1998. By that time the SAA 747 fleet stood at 5 747-244Bs, 2 747SP-44s, 1 747-244BSF, 2 747-344s, 2 ex-SQ 747-312s, 1 ex-SQ 747-212F and the 8 747-400s. Several other 747SPs were out on lease.
Of course by this time too SAA had shed its Springbok colours in favour of a new patriotic livery based around the new flag. The fuselage was all white but the red, blue, gold, black and green flag added a lot of colour.
Andrews new leadership team did much to revitalise the airline across the board. For the 747s this meant cutting loss making international services such as Osaka, Dubai, Copenhagen and Amsterdam.
Andrews’ leadership brought SAA back into profit but he fell foul of the airline’s government owners and left the carrier in early 2001. Whatever the allegations against Coleman Andrews (which mainly seem to stem from how much money he made) he had turned the carrier around.
The 747-400s would carry the newly part privatised airline (20% was sold to Swissair’s SAir group in 1999, although this was renationalised following Swissair’s collapse) through into the new century but by the early 2000s SAA had made a huge fleet replacement order for Airbuses. This included a trio of A340-600s (although only two would be delivered) and a trio of A340-300s. Six A340-200s were acquired from Lufthansa to speed up the departure of the 747s.
The last 747-400 was originally retired in 2007 and the fleet were all sold on to either Cathay Pacific, for freighter conversion, (2) or Transaero (6). Nonetheless several aircraft saw service with SAA beyond 2008. One aircraft was leased out to TAAG Angola to operate their daily Luanda-Lisbon route whilst the last aircraft was actually reactivated for a short period to make up for a shortfall of Business class seats on the Johannesburg-Lagos and Accra routes. Both eventually went to Transaero in 2010.
At this time SAA was just recovering from two years of losses in 2007 and 2008, but of course the recovery would be short-lived and since 2012 the carrier has lost staggering amounts of money and become yet another African flag carrier giving the continent’s airlines a bad name.
SAA history. Boeing 747-400
Yates, C. SAA Suffers from 777 delay. Flight Global
Cowie, A & Dockrat, I. 2000. The Turnaround of South African airways: 1998-2000.
2001, Feb. SAA Names Viljoen CEO; Andrews Leaves Before IPO. Aviation Daily
2001, May. R200m for SAA’s ex-CEO. News24
Sobie, B, 2008. SAA Reintroduces 747-400s. Flight Global
2017, October. Does the ghost of Bain and Coleman Andrews haunt SAA, Treasury? Business Report
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: