Commodities

South African Airways dropped by leading travel insurer

One of South Africa's leading travel insurance firms has stopped covering tickets issued by South African Airways against insolvency, leaving the fate of the country's struggling state-run airline hanging in the balance.

By Alexander Winning

JOHANNESBURG, Nov 29 (Reuters) - One of South Africa's leading travel insurance firms has stopped covering tickets issued by South African Airways against insolvency, leaving the fate of the country's struggling state-run airline hanging in the balance.

The decision by Santam's SNTJ.J Travel Insurance Consultants (TIC) to drop South African Airways prompted Australian travel agency Flight Centre Travel Group FLT.AX to stop selling tickets for the airline.

SAA spokesman Tlali Tlali declined to comment when called by Reuters on Friday and did not respond to emailed questions.

Neither Finance Minister Tito Mboweni's spokeswoman nor Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan's spokesman answered their phones when called by Reuters.

SAA has not made a profit since 2011 and is struggling with an unprofitable route network, ageing and inefficient airplanes and a bloated workforce, despite bailouts of more than 20 billion rand ($1.4 billion) over the past three years.

Ratings agencies regularly cite ailing state companies such as SAA and power utility Eskom as being among the biggest risks to South Africa's public finances and potential triggers for further downgrades in the country's sovereign credit rating.

SAA failed to pay employees their full salaries this month and said it had almost no cash left after an eight-day strike over pay in November forced it to cancel hundreds of flights.

Guy Leitch, an aviation analyst who edits the SA Flyer magazine, said the moves by Flight Centre and TIC to drop the airline were hugely significant.

"No one managing SAA, from Minister Gordhan downwards, anticipated the flight of confidence that the strike would have," Leitch said.

'HIGH-STAKES GAME'

In a letter to clients dated Nov. 28, Flight Centre said TIC's underwriters were no longer willing to cover SAA under their Travel Supplier Insolvency benefit due to doubts about long-term viability of the airline.

"Flight Centre Travel Group South Africa has made a decision to no longer sell SAA, until such time as we have obtained certainty in the market," the letter seen by Reuters read.

Travel Insurance Consultants (TIC), which is part of South African financial services group Santam, said in a statement that its reinsurers had instructed it to exclude SAA from its insolvency coverage.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa's government has taken a harder line on SAA recently, saying that repeated bailouts must end as it tries to preserve the country's last investment-grade credit rating.

South Africa's sovereign debt is already rated "junk" by S&P Global and Fitch Ratings while Moody's still ranks it as investment grade, helping to prevent a spike in borrowing costs typically sparked by a downgrade from all three agencies.

An SAA board member told Reuters last week that the airline might have to be liquidated if the government didn't give it more state guarantees to unlock lending from commercial banks.

Finance Minister Mboweni has yet to authorise more state guarantees and has said SAA should be shut down, but Gordhan has said he wants to save it.

SAA hasn't published financial statements for the past two years over auditors' concerns about its long-term viability.

Leitch said SAA's liabilities exceeded its assets by a huge amount and that the loss of confidence in the airline would force the government to decide whether to rescue it, or not.

"This is a high-stakes game," he said.

($1 = 14.7075 rand)

(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Jason Neely and David Clarke)

((alexander.winning@tr.com; +27 11 595 280))

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