/ 24 October 2023

SA airlines get their wings

2234decd Saa
As they start recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, FlySafair and SAA have launched new routes and are leasing additional aircraft

South Africa’s aviation industry is showing positive signs of recovery after taking a heavy knock from Covid-19, which restricted travel, although it is yet to reach pre-pandemic air traffic levels.   

Ahead of the December holiday season, traditionally a busy time for the sector, airlines such as FlySafair and SAA have launched new routes and are leasing additional aircrafts.

Although FlySafair’s levels are healthy, they are not yet as strong as they were pre-Covid, the airline’s spokesperson, Kirby Gordon, told the Mail & Guardian.

“2019 has become the ‘recovery benchmark’ year for so many industries and when we compare the number of seats on the domestic market we see the figure sitting at about 80% to 85% of what it was back in 2019,” Gordon said. 

But, she added: “The market is certainly back in an equilibrium of sorts where it seems that there is enough supply to meet the demand at a feasible operating price.”

She said FySafair launched new routes this year, which had been operated in the past by other carriers.

“We fly to Mauritius and Zanzibar and have recently started services to Harare, Victoria Falls, Livingstone and Maputo. These are all out of Johannesburg. We also launched a service from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein this year as well as a connection between Cape Town and George.”

One of the biggest difficulties the airline faced was an increase in its cost base, Gordon said.

“One of the biggest inputs is, of course, fuel, and the price of oil has risen significantly. Likewise many of our ownership and maintenance costs are really dollar based and so the rand dollar [exchange rate] plays into expenses in a huge way.” 

Flight prices, by comparison, had increased by only 6% in the year to September, she said, a rise that only accounted for inflation.

But, Gordon added: “On popular weekends, flight prices will be higher than in any other non-holiday period, just as fares are more expensive over Easter and Christmas.

“Consumers are obviously feeling the pinch on the basket of goods that we all, on average, consume, but when one looks at the basket of inputs that go into operating the flight, the inflationary pressure is significant,” she said.

SAA’s head of communications, Vimla Maistry, told the M&G that the national carrier’s passenger volumes had been growing and “we are responding to this growth by expanding our route network and fleet size”.

SAA exited business rescue in April 2021, after having been under administration since December 2019. It resumed commercial flights in September 2021, when the industry was still reeling from the pandemic.

Maistry said SAA had this year launched new routes — for a 12-month period — to Windhoek, Victoria Falls, Blantyre and Lilongwe in Malawi, Sao Paulo and Abidjan. 

“Globally there is [an] aircraft shortage [and] SAA has leased additional aircraft to meet the demand instead of buying them,” she said.

South African Tourism has collaborated with the air access teams in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town on marketing and other technical elements ahead of the festive season, spokesperson Bronwen Auret told the M&G.

“Our mandate is destination marketing for the country. For example, we drive demand and ensure that we have an enabling supply side to meet the needs of the consumers. That said, travellers need appealing and affordable means to get to and from South Africa as they have with competitor destinations,” she said.

“The aviation industry, though recovering well post the pandemic, was hard hit by Covid restrictions and are in need of increasing efforts to reach — and surpass — 2019 air traffic levels. Thus far, all the airlines and aviation stakeholders we have engaged with have been very keen to support the recovery of South African air access.

“South African Tourism invests a fair deal into marketing new routes in source markets complemented by conversion tactics that drive consumers to travel to South Africa. Just this year we had our very first airline pavilion at our business trade show, Meetings Africa, and leisure trade show, Africa’s Travel Indaba, which aimed to put African carriers top of mind and allow them to engage with buyers in hopes to increase sales down the line.”

South African Tourism participated in this year’s Routes World conference, where airlines, airports and aviation stakeholders from around the world discussed strategies on how to improve the aviation industry.

“The takeaways or lessons we gained from participating in the 28th Routes World event were that it is critical that South Africa is present at these platforms to demonstrate our capability and opportunity for all in the tourism sector and effectively to return international airlift to South Africa,” Auret said.

“Collaboration and coordination of all the teams is critical in the long term planning for South Africa’s tourism success. Together, we are able to work efficiently and effectively to return international airlift to South Africa.”