On February 1st, 1934, South African Airways began flying after the South African Government took over the assets and liabilities of Union Airways, airline founded by the father of civil aviation in South Africa, Major Allister Miller in 1929. The airline, under the control of the South African Railways and Harbour administration, was renamed South African Airways (SAA).
In November 1934, SAA introduced Junkers Ju 52/3m, the first multi-engine aircraft, and steadily acquired more planes during the 1930s.
In February 1935, South African Airways absorbed South West African Airways together with its aircraft and some of its staff.
In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, South African Airways became a military wing, and all commercial services were suspended until December 1944.
In April 1945, South African Airways became one of the 44 active founding members of the International Air Transport Association.
In November 1945, SAA started its first intercontinental service, known as the Springbok Service. The flight, routed Palmietfontein – Nairobi – Khartoum – Cairo – Castel Benito – Hurn Bournemouth, took 3 days to complete, and overnight stops were made at Nairobi and Cairo with the flying time around 33 to 34 hours.
In September 1946, SAA modernised the in-flight service when Air Hostesses were first introduced only on internal services. Later, Air Hostesses also flew on the Springbok Service.
In 1948, films were introduced on SAA Skymaster aircraft, first on internal services, and later on the Springbok Service. The first in-flight entertainment to be offered by SAA was not a success and was soon discontinued. Also, Palmietfontein Airport became the terminal for all SAA services.
In 1953, SAA entered into the jet age using two chartered Comets. The first service was operated from London to Johannesburg on October 4. The same year, Tourist Class travel was introduced using a fifty-eight seat Constellation on the London route.
In November 1957, SAA started a fortnightly service to Australia, operated by Douglas DC-7B, which was routed Johannesburg – Mauritius – Cocos Islands – Perth in Western Australia.
In October 1960, South African Airways introduced the Boeing 707 on the Springbok Service to the UK, reducing the journey to an actual flying time of around 13 hours.
In 1963, opposing to the previous government’s policy, most African states denied SAA over-flying rights above their countries forcing the airline to fly a long detour around the bulge of West Africa.
In 1965, Boeing 727 jetliners were introduced on regional and internal services. By 1967, some of the old aircraft of the airline, such as the Constellations, Skymasters and DC-7Bs, were retired. In 1968, Boeing 737 airliners were introduced to supplement the 727 fleet.
In February 1969, service to the Americas was inaugurated with the B707 flying from Johannesburg – Rio de Janeiro – New York.
In November 1971, the first “Jumbo Jet” of 30 B747s to be operated by the airline arrived at Johannesburg. The huge wide-body airliner attracted the nickname “Lebombo” and was retired after 32 years of service when it was turned over to the South African Airways Museum Society. The Jumbos were introduced on the Springbok Service in December.
In June 1974, South African airways inaugurated a service to Hong Kong with an en-route stop in the Seychelles Islands.
In 1976, internal services were again upgraded by the introduction of wide-body Airbus A300 airliners that carried 260 passengers in a mixed Business/Economy class configuration. Also, South African Airways added to its fleet Boeing 747SP aircraft when it operated the world’s first commercial flight using a Boeing 747SP that flew on the Johannesburg – Lisbon – Rome – Athens route.
In April 1981, SAA introduced a three-class service for an Australian flight: Blue Diamond First class, Gold class for Business passengers and Silver class for Economy class passengers.
In November 1986, due to economic sanctions, flights to New York were suspended. The following year, the Australian government took the same action against South Africa.
In November 1991, flights to New York were resumed after 5 years of anti-apartheid sanctions. Also, South African airways launched flights to Milan and re-introduced services to Athens.
In 1992, South African Airways entered the Miami market (from Cape Town) by flying to Miami International Airport, and re-entered Australia flying direct to Perth. The same year, SAA entered into code sharing agreements with American Airlines and Air Tanzania.
In August 1993, the first of three Boeing 767 wide-body twinjets were delivered to SAA. The smaller wide-body airliner was used to fly to Africa, the Middle East, and Southern European destinations.
In 1991 South African Express Airways was granted a license to operate domestically in South Africa, SAA was a 10% shareholder. The airline would be a feeder service operator and take over some of SAA’s low-density internal routes.
In March 1994, South African Express Airways began operating, 3 years after it was granted a license to operate domestically. SAA initially held a 20% stake in the SA Express, which took over some of SAA’s low-density domestic routes.
In March 1997, SAA unveiled a new corporate identity with its aircraft tail designed to reflect the colours of South Africa’s new national flag: red, blue, gold, black and green.
In February 1997, a strategic alliance which is governed by a franchise agreement was formed between SAA, SA Express and SA Airlink.
In 2002, South African Airways opened First and Business class lounges at Heathrow Airport in London.
In July 2005, with a Boeing 747-400, SAA started a four times weekly Johannesburg – Accra – Washington, D.C. service, which was increased to daily flights in July 2006. Also, the 747-400 was replaced by an Airbus A340-600.
In April 2006, SAA was the first African airline to became a member of the Star Alliance. As a condition of entry, and to celebrate the occasion, one Airbus A340-600 and one Boeing 737-800 were repainted in Star Alliance livery.
In 2011, SAA implemented cabin upgrades on the six new A330-200s flying long-haul routes. These customer experience improvements allowed SAA to better compete with rival carriers on key routes from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London.
In September 2012, aligning its policy with most of the larger Star Alliance member carriers, SAA switched to the piece concept, a checked baggage policy that restricts the number of pieces of baggage a passenger may check in, rather than the total weight of the checked baggage.
In June 2013, South African Airways achieved IATA Environmental Status 1, becoming one of only 6 airlines worldwide to have done so. The rating addresses issues like general and onboard recycling, limiting C02 emissions, efficient airport operations and energy efficiency.
In May 2014, in order to make long-haul flights much more enjoyable, South African Airways launched Social Check-in. The Social Seat Selector helps you select your neighbors on your flight according to their Facebook information.
In 2015, Mango, the low-cost subsidiary of South African Airways launched in 2006, won the Skytrax World Airline Award for Best African Low-cost Carrier.
In 2016, South African Airways won the Skytrax World Airline Award for Best Airline in Africa for the 14th consecutive year. In 2017, South African Airways won the Skytrax World Airline Award for Best Airline Staff in Africa for the 5th time.
In 2016-2017, SAA added to its fleet five new Airbus A330 300. The new Airbus A330-300 wide-body aircraft with a capacity of 249 passengers, 46 Premium Business Class seats and 203 Economy Class seats, offer state-of-the-art technology and a comfortable environment for long-haul travel with a new and innovative Premium Business Class product and a spacious and enhanced Economy Class cabin.
Beginning June 2017, SAA introduced the Airbus A330-300 on routes to Washington, DC, Accra, Ghana.
In March 2018, South African Airways introduced the new Airbus A330-300 on the London route. At the same time, as part of the five-year Corporate Plan developed in 2017 to return the airline to financial sustainability in the shortest time possible, the airline has decided to reduce frequencies on the route from two flights to a single daily service.
During its history, South African Airways was involved in only a few deadly incidents, but also one hijacking with no fatalities. The deadliest accidents were the last two, in 1968, when a brand new Boeing 707 crashed after taking off from Windhoek, killing 123 people in the disaster that left only 5 survivors, and respectively in 1987, when a B747 crashed into the Indian Ocean near the island of Mauritius, killing all 159 persons on board.