QUESTIONS about the efficiency of the South African Airways (SAA) staff-per-plane ratio have dogged the airline for months and an aviation expert says there might be cause for concern.

An e-mail doing the rounds after being posted online alleges that the SAA group - which includes the national carrier, the short-haul airline Mango, catering company Air Chefs, travel agency SAA City Centre and aircraft maintenance company SAA Technical - employed more staff per plane than comparable airlines around the world.

The allegation is especially damaging in light of the government extending a R5bn loan guarantee to keep the airline going.

SAA spokesman Tlali Tlali said the conclusions contained in the e-mail should "be rejected as they are both inaccurate and misleading".

A Business Times spot survey found that the unknown author of the e-mail exaggerated SAA's numbers. They were put at 55500 employees for the fleet of 60 aircraft, with the conclusion that SAA employs 925 people a plane.

The state-owned company actually had 11,044 employees for its fleet in the year to March, making the actual number about 184 people a plane. SAA spent R4.7bn on salaries and benefits, its second-largest single expense after fuel.

The revised number is still higher than those of comparable airlines with international operations. Australian counterpart Qantas had 33,584 employees servicing a fleet of 308 planes (about 109 an aircraft) in the year to December 2011, at a cost of almost $3.8-billion (about R34.6bn at Thursday's rates).

The European International Airlines Group, parent company of British Airways and Iberia, employed 56,791 staff members for 348 aircraft (168 an aircraft) in the same period, costing the group à3.7-billion (R45-billion) in salaries and benefits.

American Airlines is the only major international airline with higher staff numbers an aircraft than SAA's. It had a staff-plane ratio of around 293 people at the end of 2011, its latest reporting period. It filed for bankruptcy protection in November 2011.

Mr Tlali said the ratio between employees and aircraft, measured in isolation, cannot be used as a reliable formula to measure airline efficiency.

He said airlines operate different aircraft, with different allocations of flight and cabin crew and engineers.

However, aviation expert Guy Leitch said SAA's response focuses on its flight operations, which are actually well run.

"In my view SAA should have fewer staff per plane as [its] routes are longer than, say, a low-cost carrier or feeder airline," said Mr Leitch.

"It's all the other non-core employees that you must think about. In my opinion, SAA is 10% to 20% overstaffed in non-core employees."

SAA should consider letting go of these 1104 to 2208 people and this should form part of its turnaround plan, said Mr Leitch.

"The airline would be profitable if it cut its bloated staff by 15% and updated its fleet with modern twin-engine airliners."

Mr Tlali did not answer any questions about the turnaround plan.

* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times