As my many previous blog posts evince, I love going to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. After my first Kruger visit in 1991 when I was working in South Africa, I was hooked for life.
I am going again in late February. Usually I fly to the Kruger from Johannesburg, but it looks like I might have to drive this time instead.
Back in the early 90s I lived in Johannesburg and had a leased car, so I frequently drove the five hour trip to reach the Park whenever I wanted to visit. Since then, however, I fly to Jo’burg (JNB) and catch a connecting flight to the Kruger.
The only way to get there by air from Johannesburg is on South African Express Airways.
SA Express flies from Jo’burg to two airports accessing the Kruger: Modern Mpumalanga Nelspruit/Kruger International Airport (MQP) opened in 2002, and charming little Skukuza Airport (SZK) dates from 1958. Skukuza is tiny and beautiful (voted the world’s prettiest airport by Forbes in 2018 after a ten year rebuild).
SZK is actually inside the Kruger Park, so I am already there when we touch the tarmac. From MQP I can be in the Park in about 45 minutes after picking up my rental car.
SA Express, with its small fleet of RJs that serves domestic markets in South Africa, holds a monopoly on the MQP and SZK routes. Like big brother South African Airways, SA Express is wholly owned and managed by the government. Unlike big brother, however, SA Express has no competition on the routes it flies.
The fact that SA Express is the sole means of flying between Johannesburg and the Kruger National Park has never bothered me because the service has always been reliable and the connecting fares reasonable (about $250 round trip JNB to MQP, and around $300 from JNB into more convenient SKZ).
Never bothered me, that is, until now. Seems SA Express, like big brother SAA, may be close to collapse. Recent (late January, 2020) media accounts state matter-of-factly that years of mismanagement have brought both the big and little state-run airlines to this point:
- South African Airways temporarily cancels several flights.
- South African Airways is bankrupt.
- South African Airways cancels flights in fight for survival.
- SAA business rescue efforts are being sabotaged deliberately, some claim.
- SA Express braces for “business rescue” (a type of bankruptcy proceeding in South Africa) and possible liquidation.
- Creditors queue up against SA Express.
And this January 23rd piece details a rancorous dispute between SA Express and one creditor and clearly explains the problem baby brother has with alliance partner SAA:
“The fact that national carrier SAA has been placed in business rescue [bankruptcy] is risking the viability of another state-owned airline, SA Express, according to court documents filed last week. …
“The documents … reveal that while SA Express and SAA are separate businesses, SA Express is a creditor of SAA. Business rescue practitioners of SAA have confirmed this.
“SA Express is an alliance partner of SAA, and is dependent on it for code sharing and related services. ‘SAA sells tickets on behalf of SA Express and pays SA Express once passengers have travelled,’ Ziegler’s affidavit reads.
“According to [the] affidavit, SAA owed SA Express approximately R20m [about $1.4 million], before the national carrier was placed in business rescue in December 2019.
“Three creditors have filed separate liquidation applications, SA Express owes them more than R34m [about $2.4 million], the affidavit showed.”
On top of which, the South African Auditor-General’s reported that SA Express lost R590m (over $41 million) for the 2018/19 financial year.
Reading all these reports caused me more than abstract angst because of my upcoming Kruger National Park visit in February. I fly Delta to Johannesburg, with onward flights booked and paid for from Johannesburg to Skukuza via SA Express.
Since the SA Express financial problems indicate the strong possibility that my JNB/SZK flights will be canceled, I thought a backup car rental would be prudent. A few keystrokes at the Avis website did the trick. Now if the worst happens, I will be driving an Avis car on the five hour overland journey from Johannesburg airport to Skukuza.
Just like I used to do in 1991.