Fri, 13 Dec 2019

Industrial action in the aviation industry is not just confined to South Africa, Bob Schumacher, United Airlines' regional managing director sales, told Fin24 on Monday.

While he did not refer to South African Airways or any other airline specifically, Schumacher's comment comes against the backdrop of a strike by members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Cabin Crew Association at SAA.

The strike started on Friday. Numsa has said it would begin a process of consulting workers for a secondary strike in aviation at companies including the Civil Aviation Authority, Mango Airlines, SAfair, SA Express, Airports Company SA and Airchefs. The Airlines Association of Southern Africa, meanwhile, warned on Monday that a secondary strike could lead to a national crisis.

Schumacher is in South Africa ahead of United Airlines' first nonstop service between Cape Town and New York/Newark, commencing December 16, 2019.

A Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft will operate the seasonal route three times per week. For travellers flying from Cape Town, the new route provides onward connections to more than 80 US cities as well as over 30 destinations in Canada, Mexico Central America and the Caribbean.

At a media briefing in Cape Town on Monday, Schumacher spoke briefly of the merger between United Airlines and Continental Airlines in 2010. It involved a process of restructuring and consolidation.

Asked by Fin24 about United's approach to restructuring - like with the merger in 2010 - and towards industrial action when it occurs, Schumacher said it is "vital to make your people the centre of your mission as an airline".

"That was what our CEO at United did after the merger. If you have your people on your side, you have what you need to be successful, making passengers come back repeatedly," said Schumacher.

"It is a team effort. We are involved in a team sport. This has been a collaborative approach," he said about the journey to making the new direct route to Cape Town a reality.

"Americans have money in their pockets and they have a wanderlust. They will come to spend their dollars here. Some will also come to see family and friends."

Today United is one of the largest global carriers, with 90 000 employees.

Schumacher said he anticipates the business sector will use the new direct route as well, because of the opportunity it offers to develop trade on both sides of the Atlantic.

Escalating SAA strike to test Ramaphosa's will

He admitted the airline is starting a bit late in the SA high summer season, saying this is due to aircraft availability.

"This allows us to put a toe in the water to prove we got it right," he told Fin24.

"If this is what customers want, this is what we will provide. But if they do not want to be connected in this market, we will find another opportunity. It is a long-haul route and we want it to be financially viable."

According to David Maynier, Western Cape MEC for economic opportunities, the US is the biggest source of foreign direct investment in the Western Cape. US companies that have invested in the province include Amazon.com.

James Vos, Cape Town's Mayoral Committee Member of economic affairs and tourism, foresees that the new direct route will enable Cape Town to become more globally competitive and a springboard into the rest of the continent.

Research by Wesgro, the official tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape, states that about 376 892 American citizens visited SA in 2018. Of these US visitors, 33.5% were revisiting.

The agency's data shows that bilateral trade flows between SA and the US remain strong, with bilateral goods trade flows between the two countries surging since 2000, growing from US$6.6bn in 2001 to close on US$12bn in 2018.

The strong growth seen after 2000 can be ascribed in part to SA's African Growth Opportunity Act membership, Wesgro stated in a fact sheet.

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