In the front line

Enabling trade and unlocking mobility in Africa

Zuks RamasiaAs General Manager Operations at South African Airlines (SAA), Zuks Ramasia is in the front line of change for African air transport. So what are the key issues and how is technology impacting her day-to-day work?

Q: SAA has a strategy to “enable trade and unlock mobility” and new low-cost airlines have started in the past couple of years. How important a role is technology playing in these changes?

Nigeria and South Africa are the two economic powerhouses of Africa, so it makes sense for us to have strong links. But there’s a broader transformation of infrastructure taking place across Africa.

Compare the way African railway networks were built to those in India. Of course there’s a massive difference in topography and landscape between the two continents.

But Africa’s railways were built to provide direct routes to port for raw materials extracted from the interior and shipped to the colonial powers.

There was no interest in creating a network to link communities or countries together. India’s railways were built specifically to link the sub-continent together so it could be ruled more easily.

However, the speed and dynamic behind the spread of mobile telephony over the last 15 years – and now the internet – is transforming the way we work in our own countries and work together.

Add to that a massive drop in entry costs for airlines and the availability of technology-driven processes for airlines and airports no matter what their size, and you have the makings of the changes we’re seeing on the continent.

Africa is coming together and the accelerating growth in trade between African countries will result in huge improvements.

Remember that 30 years ago, SAA was banned from overflying most other African countries. Today we’re serving 20 countries across Africa and demand is growing all the while.

Q: As the person responsible for operational activities at SAA, how is technology changing your day-to-day life?

I’m accountable for safety and security, efficiently running ground and crew operations, ensuring compliance, handling risk analysis and quality assurance and negotiating third party operational contracts – as well as controlling operating costs and procedures.

It’s primarily about people having the training, processes and tools to do their jobs well. But information and communication technologies underpin everything.

Let me give three examples where technology is having a major impact.

At the time of the 2010 World Cup, the Government agreed to implement SITA’s iBorders®. It was the first interactive advance passenger information system to be introduced in Africa and it effectively moved South Africa’s borders to the point of departure.

It meant passengers could be welcomed and processed more quickly and efficiently on arrival. It helped us reduce admin and turnaround costs – and of course eliminated the costs of returning any inadmissible passengers. We continue to benefit from the decision to invest in this security technology.

Second, our ground staff benefit from the use of mobiles across the airport, whether they are engineers or passenger facing staff. Increased mobile use increases speed of response and flexibility. It helps to ensure the right people are in the right place as needed.

And thirdly, our passengers are now invariably connected via their own mobile phones – and increasingly, with smartphones. So, for example, our range of check-in options makes full use of the opportunities – including online, mobile, kiosks and social (enabling the passenger to use Facebook to help select who they want to sit next to).

Technology is impacting every element of our work, internally and externally. Critically, it’s accessible, affordable and ubiquitous. SITA is playing a key role in this, across the sector. It’s making the benefits of technology available to passengers, airports and airlines.

And because it’s handling technology that covers every element of travel, SITA is uniquely positioned to link it all together. That’s a great bonus airlines and airports have recognized from the outset, and explains why SAA has been a member of SITA since 1957.

Q: You’ve taken a strong stance in the airline on the need to break down barriers to employment of women.

Well sixty years ago there was a celebrated march by 20,000 women in Pretoria, calling for a non-sexist and non-racial South Africa. So equality for women is as important as equality between races.

But gender equality is also a business issue. Globally there’s a technology skills shortage. Across Africa, there is not only a skills shortage but also a drain of professionally trained people to other countries.

In South Africa, gender discrimination is outlawed by our constitution. However, in many sectors – including aviation – the field still favors men. This is frustrating and short-sighted: our industry offers a wide range of career opportunities and women have the same levels of passion, aptitude and dedication as men.

So we have to take a collective stand until women’s empowerment ceases to be a talking point.

We’ve seen some progress, with women taking management roles especially in the customer-facing line. But the traditionally more male-oriented areas – such as flight operations, pilots, technicians, engineering and maintenance fields – are still a far cry from  matching the country’s demographics.

There are exemplars we can learn from. For example Airports Company South Africa, which manages nine airports in South Africa, including our three main international gateways at Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, now has an equal 50/50 female/male Board and their management is showing similar progress.

My own airline has also recognized the need for action. In August we ran a flight between Johannesburg and Cape Town with an all-female crew. Flight dispatcher, operations controller, load controller and ramp controller were also women.

We now have women working as technicians, flight deck crew, cabin crew, and in key operational and support areas throughout the SAA Group. Our pilot academy is beginning to turn out women pilots.

And as has been mentioned elsewhere, some of the new low-cost airlines are making the mark with senior women executives.

But these are the exceptions. We need more partnerships with major airline manufacturers and suppliers. We need to introduce and implement more programs such as those run by SITA’s Air Transport Community Foundation, targeting women and young female students.

Our industry should recognize that diversity is a uniting factor. We must stand together to promote awareness, to develop, to nurture, to celebrate and to empower women in our industry. Africa should be the catalyst and women should be the symbol of empowerment!

Q: Are you optimistic about pan-African development – and do you see technology continuing to play a central role?

Technology is helping us become liberated from the mistakes of the past – such as the woeful lack of infrastructure. It’s making us a stronger part of the global community. It’s enabling small startup airlines to provide the granularity of links between cities that’s needed. It’s also enabling Africans to demonstrate to the rest of the world their innate skills as entrepreneurs.

So, yes, technology is central to our future – so long as that is a future where your skills are recognized no matter the color of your skin or whether you are a man or woman.

Technology is making us a stronger part of the global community. It’s enabling small startup airlines to provide the granularity of links between cities that’s needed. And it’s enabling Africans to demonstrate to the rest of the world their innate skills as entrepreneurs.

Zuks Ramasia, General Manager Operations, South African Airlines

See also

A bright future?

The white paper ‘A bright future: Africa, air transport, technology and empowerment for women’ was written and published by SITA for the inaugural ‘Women in African Air Transport’ event in Johannesburg late last year, organized jointly by BARSA and SITA.

Read the white paper

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