From flight attendant to Acting CEO

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Zuks Ramasia is the perfect example of what people can achieve when they believe in themselves and pursue their ambitions. Ramasia started her career as a flight attendant at the South African Airways (SAA) about 27 years ago, and now she is the Acting CEO of the airline.

“I remember being asked during the interview for the flight attendant post where I see myself in future and I said: ‘I see myself as a senior manager’,” she recalled.

 At the time, Ramasia had a BA degree in Human Resource Development and BA Honours in English and Psychology from the then Rand Afrikaans University, now the University of Johannesburg.

Five years into her job as a flight attendant, Ramasia started teaching cabin crew and pilots about safety and procedure, which is crucial for the team to evacuate passengers safely from the flight in case of emergency.

A few years later, she applied for the Operations Manager position and got it.

“My career took off from there. I held various senior management positions at SAA and served on various boards within the aviation industry. I have not missed a single step on my way up to my current position,” she said.

Along the way she obtained a Diploma in Airline Operations from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which is a trade association of the world’s airlines. She also graduated from the Leadership Development Programme offered by the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science and a Postgraduate Diploma in Management from Henley Business School.

Ramasia said she is well aware of the high expectations that come with her current position.

SAA has a presence on every continent across the globe. It has a responsibility to ensure transportation of passengers in the safest way possible and on time to various destinations locally and abroad.

Part of its mandate is also to offer the most cost-effective customer experience to passengers.

“We call ourselves a world-class leading airline in Africa,” said Ramasia.

Her responsibility as Acting CEO is to ensure that everybody in the company understands SAA’s mandate, vision and mission to ensure that the airline runs smoothly and is recognised worldwide, said Ramasia.

She is also tasked with maintaining SAA’s good safety record.

Addressing challenges at SAA

Recently, the airline has experienced financial troubles. Ramasia assured the public that there was a plan to turn things around.

“Funding is still our biggest challenge because certain parts of our strategy have not been implemented when they were supposed to. My duty is to ensure that I fast track the implementation of our existing long-term turnaround strategy. This keeps me up at night,” she acknowledged.

“We have five key pillars which are liquidity, balance sheet restructuring, revenue enhancement, cost optimisation and strategy. With this we could reach financial stability if we implement our long-term strategy,” Ramasia elaborated.

“We also understand that South Africans cannot afford to give SAA money every time because it is our responsibility to generate money through our own operations. We have an action plan on how to implement our strategy,” she added.

She said some of the solutions include reviewing procurement procedures, getting the best prices, optimising network across the globe because an aircraft is expensive when it is standing still.

“As employees of the airline, we all need to do our part to return it to its state of profitability. It is not only the CEO’s responsibility and that is what I am trying to get all staff members to understand and do.”

She said the executive committee of the airline recently met with senior managers from across the globe to contribute to the action plan that will get the airline back on track to being profitable.

Contribution to the SA economy

Ramasia said SAA is vital to South Africa’s transport sector and the country’s economy because it is the national carrier of South Africa.

“We carried about nine million passengers together with SA Express and Mango in the past year. So our responsibility is to keep reminding everybody that there is safe air transport that they can use to travel for business, leisure or any other reason,” she said.

To ensure that the airline becomes more market competitive and provides its customers with the best air travel options available, it has formed new partnerships to expand on travel choices in North and South America.

Ramasia said SAA has signed codeshare and frequent-flyer agreements with Brazilian airline GOL Linhas Aéreas, which means SAA passengers can now fly from São Paulo to 20 other destinations in Brazil on GOL.

A similar partnership has also been signed with Alaska airlines, which is the fifth largest airline in the United States.

Ramasia said SAA is looking at introducing more new routes. “We are looking at Guangzhou, which is a sprawling port city northwest of Hong Kong in China. This is a very strategic route for us because many people across the continent love travelling to Guangzhou, so OR Tambo International Airport will be the hub for customers who want to fly there from our country and the continent.

“This is expected to start operating from early next year and we are excited about it.

“We also have new Airbus A350- 900 jets that are coming and they will replace the A340-600 on our New York route. We are making progress in securing the regulatory approvals and the required training for our crew and technicians so that they are certified to operate these aircraft,” she said.

Empowering women in aviation

Ramasia said SAA has made progress in bringing equitable representation of women in all its disciplines, in an industry that is still largely male-dominated.

“We have increased the number of women who fly for SAA to 66 pilots, of which six are captains. This represents 30 percent of female pilots who are qualified and hold Airline Transport Pilot Licences in South Africa,” she said.

As at September 2019, the airline had 4 724 permanent employees of which 2 427 were female.

“This is not something that happened by default. It is a concerted effort by the management of the organisation to ensure that when there are vacant positions we look for capable women because the industry has been male-dominated for decades,” she said.

In 1994 there were only four female technicians working at SAA, but today there are 158 with 10 leaders, seven senior licensed technicians, three aviation instructors, and 138 aviation technicians.

SAA has 71 females at its Technical Training School who are busy with their apprenticeship training to become aircraft technicians.

Ramasia said SAA has had one female CEO previously and now she is the Acting CEO, which is an indication of how the industry remains dominated by males.

Although SAA has been in the spotlight for funding controversies, Ramasia said there are many positive stories that people need to know, such as the airline managing to maintain its fourstar carrier status for the past 17 years.

Her message to South Africa during Transport Month is that the national carrier is always proud to bring the world to Africa and take Africa to the world.


*This article appeared in Public Sector Manager magazine in October 2019