Glenn Orsmond, Crash and Burn: A CEO’s Crazy Adventures in the SA Airline Industry (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2024)

FOR nearly thirty years I was regularly told that higher education needed to follow a business model. Clearly the promoters of that notion knew nothing of the airline industry. Glenn Orsmond spent a working lifetime with South African airlines treating them as an accountancy challenge. He fell into this by chance and claims not to be able to tell one aircraft model from another. His engaging and frank book, ‘brutally honest’ in Tim Cohen’s opinion, effectively charts the history of South Africa’s many airlines since deregulation.

The bulk of his story concerns Comair, for which he worked three times – twice as CEO. It originated as a family firm and was prudently run for decades by competent staff, although with a certain arrogance as one of its founders assumed it owned the sky. Among many successes it secured a beneficial deal with British Airways; and established the low-cost carrier Kulula, which was at one stage the nation’s biggest online retailer and had a profound effect on the tourism industry. But family firms are prone to generational shift and Comair ended up with two centres of executive power. It later became victim to 9/11 currency fluctuations.

The industry is prone to big egos. Nationwide, the airline finally grounded by a lost engine in flight, was run by a former second-hand car salesman who found a profitable market niche. When it tried to sell its fleet to Comair, the deal fell apart through personal clashes and animus. The same happened to a promising business opportunity between Sun Air (formerly Bop Air where Orsmond started his career) and Comair. As he puts it, ‘personalities often prevail over sound, sober business decisions’.

In 2004 Orsmond was a founder of 1time, with which Comair rejected a partnership. The new airline set informal trends in pricing and staff uniforms and partnered with Nando’s. Above all it looked for staff with the right attitude rather than qualifications and avoided contamination by personnel from other airlines. A hostile board forced Orsmond’s resignation and when he was appointed CEO of Mango, this was vetoed politically. Within two years Mango had collapsed.

He went back to Comair for two further, short stints after sixteen years. In 2019 he was appointed joint CEO; an arrangement experience should have taught him was doomed to failure. In addition, the company was now affected by multiple inefficiencies, pilot power that dominated decisions about aircraft, and a refusal of ground staff to multi-task. Covid brought an end, and business rescue, to this episode. Orsmond then planned a new low-cost virtual airline that would lease aircraft on demand and operated only on profitable routes. This emerged as the new airline, Lift.

Orsmond meanwhile returned to Comair with a business rescue plan that was sunk by factors unforeseen. No one, it seems, factored in further waves of Covid or the hysterical reaction to Omicron. Boeing refused to co-operate about aircraft on order and the banks behaved in rapacious fashion. He also found that the requirements of business rescue meant that lawyers were in a powerful position, one that enabled them to profit mightily. Consultants proved just as pernicious and often incompetent, and there was no robust company structure to meet these challenges. Comair folded on the last day of May 2022 after a chain of calamitous events that amounted to long-term management failure.    

The author makes telling comments about recent change. Business used to be conducted around handshakes and compromise; but no longer. Emails, he argues, ‘took the fun out of business’; while statements by spokespersons took the sense out of communication. The word ‘fun’ pops up again in relation to running an airline; but before the emergence of large human resources departments and regulating authorities. The size of the former, he argues, is in inverse proportion to staff wellbeing.

He reserves his most cutting criticism for pilots and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Pilots with South African Airways he describes as a ‘pantheon of self-anointed demigods’ intent on minimum work and maximum lifestyle justified in the name of safety. A CAA audit of 1time raised false claims about engine maintenance; and some years later back at Comair, Orsmond had to deal with an extraordinary reaction to two engine failures. The evidence he publishes is enough to prove his claim of a political hatchet job presented in Kafkaesque fashion. The diversionary motivation, he suggests, resulted from an embarrassing accident with a CAA plane that violated all its own rules.

The recent history of the airline industry in South Africa, reinforced by Orsmond’s account, shows that it is a cut-throat business on a knife-edge. Paradoxically its margins are small with vast potential profits, which is maybe why it attracts buccaneering investors and managers. The reader is left with the impression that with his forensic accountant’s approach Orsmond did his best while making mistakes as everyone does. But his apparent faith that sanity would prevail seems somewhat naïve in view of human nature ‒ and that of the modern world.