BT: What developments can you tell us about South African Airways service in North America?
NEUMAN: Last year was the introduction of the new Airbus A330 on the Washington-Johannesburg route with several enhancements to the on-board product. Our premium business class cabin is a 1-2-1 configuration that allows direct aisle access from every seat. Business class has a new entertainment system with a larger screen, and still features 180-degree flat beds and gourmet cuisine. For both our business class and our economy class customers, we serve exclusively South African wines.
BT: Are you looking at adding any new routes?
NEUMAN: Currently we fly to six continents. We are looking at additional destinations in Asia and Europe. And of course, as North America is our largest international region, we are looking at other opportunities there as well. But any expansion into North America will most likely require us to serve those routes with a new airplane.
BT: Why is that?
NEUMAN: Since most of the international routes that we serve are anywhere from 12 to 16 hours long – for example Johannesburg-New York – we really need an aircraft designed for long-range missions. Plus our Johannesburg hub is such a high altitude. So the aircraft needs the capability to take off from a high-altitude airport and fly for 12 to 16 hours. There are very few aircraft on the market that have that capability.
BT: When it comes to investment in the airline’s fleet renewal, what’s the role of the South African government?
NEUMAN: The airline is still 100 percent owned by the South African government. But they recognize that in today’s environment it’s difficult for them to have sole responsibility for recapitalization of the airline. So as part of our five-year business plan, the government is looking at an equity partner for South African Airways.
BT: Are they considering a joint venture with another airline?
NEUMAN: They’re looking at both options, whether it be a private firm or another airline. I think ideally the preference would be an equity partner in another airline because of the cost-savings that could be achieved. But it certainly needs to be the right partner with complementary route networks.
BT: What’s the outlook for business travel to Africa these days?
NEUMAN: Among the top 10 emerging economies around the world, at least 50 percent are countries in Africa. South Africa has always been an economic engine on the African continent. Nigeria has been very strong and within the last few years, Ethiopia has also emerged as a new area of economic growth. So the growth in business travel to Africa has really benefitted the airline, because more US companies are developing operations in sub-Saharan Africa.
BT: How is the airline positioning itself to be part of Africa’s growth story?
NEUMAN: The government does still recognize the airline as a national asset. We are very much part of the national development agenda, fostering economic growth and business development, and particularly tourism, which is quickly surpassing the mining industry as the number one economic driver, both from leisure travelers and the meeting and incentive market. We’re seeing some nice recovery in the incentive market in South Africa.
BT: What’s most rewarding for you personally?
NEUMAN: For me, actually, one thing is not only are we selling the airline, but we also have the pleasure of selling a great destination. There’s so much to see and do on the African continent; there’s a lot of diversity in the landscape, the culture, the heritage. One thing that we most commonly hear from our customers who have visited Africa is, it was a life-changing experience. And that’s always great to hear because I think it gives them a much different perspective on the continent itself.