South Africa-Based Fly Blue Crane Is The First Airline Started By A Black Woman


Hello broken gender and race barrier! Remember the name Sizakele Mzimela because she has not only made history, but has paved the way for many other women in the aviation industry to follow in her wake. Sizakele is the CEO and founder of Fly Blue Crane, a South Africa-based airline which is now embarking on International jaunts and launched in September 2015.

Sizakele is certainly comfortable with being a barrier-breaker, as she is a former CEO of South African Airways and was the first woman named on the board of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in its 71-year history. The association represents 117 countries, and its member airlines account for 83 percent of air traffic.

She started her aviation career 20 years ago while working for a South African oil company whose offices were opposite SAA’s. She heard SAA were looking for an analyst and applied successfully, but not without some hurdles.

In an interview with Runway Girl Network, Sizakele talks about the typical type of barriers she faced being a woman, and a woman of color, in a male-dominated industry.

“The people interviewing me were obnoxious, asking me the same questions over and over again, trying to trip me up. I walked out of that interview knowing I wanted to work in aviation because these pale white men felt this young African women couldn’t do it. And the most arrogant man on that panel? In a few years, that man was reporting to me,” she said.


But her own merit was enough vengeance for her, as she worked her way up the ranks and over the course of her career with SAA was a manager in different divisions, including the Americas, the Middle East and Africa.

“The biggest joke is that I wasn’t able to stay in one position for 12 months. I kept getting promoted to the next level. I looked after alliances and then became general manager of Africa and the Middle East. I was then promoted and became SAA’s first black executive vice president. When I was promoted to EVP, I initially looked after global operations on the airport side. Within six months, I was EVP of commercial sales. I then left SAA to become the head of SA Express. I came back to SAA as CEO, then left to start my own airline,” she said.

If by now the phrase “Like A Boss” has not come to mind, go back and read that last paragraph again…

Sizakele says one of her biggest achievements throughout her career at SAA was helping build a proper relationship between the pilot’s union and the cabin crew, allowing everyone to be on the same page to further the success of the company. It was one of the things that made her a great candidate to be nominated for the IATA board position. Despite all of this success, the thought of creating more jobs for people and breaking more barriers in the industry kept calling her, which led Sizakele to eventually launch her own airline.


And she chose to rely on her strong background and ability to forge lasting professional relationships in the industry as her ticket to raising money.

“If I was a white male, I’m sure I’d have people flooding me with money because they wanted to support me. But I’m fortunate because I have my own network, one that is interacting with people who want to connect with me,” she said.

Fly Blue Crane is backed by Pretoria-based aviation consultancy, Blue Crane Aviation. Sizakele holds a majority 70% stake in the airline, with former SAA Head of Revenue Planning Jerome Simelane holding 10%, and Fly Blue Crane airlines General Manager Theunis Potgieter holding the remaining 10%.

Sizakele today runs an airline which is now flying to other countries on the African continent, the first destination being Windhoek, Namibia. In 2015, Fly Blue Crane applied for rights to operate flights to Swaziland and Mozambique, according to FlightGlobal.


Her story is no doubt going to inspire many young women across South Africa and indeed around the world. We are seeing quite the explosion of stories regarding females breaking major gender barriers in all aspects of aviation, be they civilian or even military. However we still have a long way to go to reach equality. The Women In Aviation International organization estimates that women pilots, for example, only represent 6% of the global industry, despite an increase in women in the industry in general over the past 2 decades.

However, it is exciting to see how this slow change along with visible role models like Sizakele Mzimela is going to make an impact on the next generation of women who enter the industry. And Sizakele herself has some key advice for them on how to deal with the barriers they may still face.

“You have to accept up front that your road will be more difficult than the pale white male sitting next to you. Instead of moaning and complaining, just get on with it. You will have to always have to be better than them because they will only ignore you up to a point. People may not like your color or your agenda when say they want the best person for the job,” she said, basically explaining her own outlook and what helped her continue to climb the ladder in her own career.


Although it is unfair that often women do have to work harder to reach equality in many male-dominated industries or to even be recognized as capable, Sizkele says it is a good way to focus less on complaining, and stay determined regardless of the difficulties.

“Be mentally prepared that climbing that mountain will be different, but I’m prepared to climb to the top. It’s your job to say ‘nothing will stop me. I’m going to make it,’ because it doesn’t look like, I’m sad to say, that things will change any time soon,” she said.

Fly Blue Crane may not be servicing every major country in the world (yet), but with Sizakele at the head of the company, together with her mostly-female staff on board, we have no doubt we are going to see the airline cross more barriers, in the skies, to reach even more potential customers.

Take a look at an interview Sizakele did with CNBC Africa in October 201 shortly after Fly Blue Crane was officially launched:

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