More critical air routes are closing to South Africans – a year into global travel curbs

Business Insider SA

News analysis

Travel bans
(Constantine Johnny, Getty)
  • Travel bans and border closures kicked in across the world a year ago. They were expected to be short lived.
  • In the past week, South Africans have seen travel options close down.
  • And entire regions of the world are, practically speaking, impossible to access.
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In March 2020, countries around the world closed their borders and started warning their travelling citizens to get home while they still could – for fear that travel could be disrupted in the short term.

A year later South Africans are still seeing travel options squeezed, with entire sections of the globe either formally off limits or simply inaccessible for logistical reasons, outside of extraordinary measures such as chartering a private flight or spending two weeks in quarantine in a third country. 

While not the only factor, hard questions on South Africa's vaccine rollout are not helping.

On Sunday the government of Ireland confirmed its suspension of visa-free travel for South Africans – which acts as a ban in all but exceptional cases – has been extended indefinitely.

The lack of an end or review date seems to be part of a growing trend among both governments and airlines to stop making promises about when things may normalise, after failed attempts to predict the future.

South Africans continue to be particularly targeted for restrictions, thanks to continued fears about the coronavirus variant first detected SA. But more general bans and restrictions are now cutting off travel options that had remained open through some of the worst phases of the pandemic locally.

In some cases, airlines continue to fly to Johannesburg, and will accept South Africans on the their planes – but can no longer fly onward to as many destinations.

On Friday, a United Kingdom ban on travellers who have spent time in or passed through Ethiopia comes into effect, in a change to the UK's travel red list. Such bans dramatically reduce the usefulness of Ethiopian Airlines – which has maintained flights into and out of South Africa as long as the South African government allowed it – as a hub or quarantine stopover.

It is not clear exactly why Ethiopia was red listed, but connections with South Africa can cause a country trouble; earlier this month the Seychelles banned South Africans in an effort to keep its air route to the UK open.

Other airlines that offer major hubs and regular services to and from South Africa, such as Qatar Airways, have been hit by similar restrictions.

In other instances, entire regions are becoming increasingly hard to access. Travel into the Asia-Pacific area in particular has been hit by a combination of border restrictions and flight cancellations, and now by an inability to transit through countries such as Ethiopia.

Only Singapore residents may fly into Singapore, and Hong Kong's flag carrier Cathay Pacific has extended a suspension of flights from South African until at least the end of June.

Australia’s Qantas is expected to resume flights in November, but that appears to be dependent on Australia’s success in rolling out vaccines, and how effective those vaccines turn out to be.

Meanwhile, uncertainty hangs over the plans for other major airlines that service routes important to South Africans. 

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad is technically due to resume daily flights from Johannesburg in November – but says that date is still under review. British airlines Virgin Atlantic and BA both had plans to resume a heavy schedule of South African flights in April, but the continued red-listing of SA by the UK makes that unlikely.

Airlines in the USA have told shareholders they will continue to update demand models before committing to schedules; with "agility" now prized over dependability, markets such as South Africa face having flights suddenly yanked at little notice to shift capacity elsewhere.

And whether SAA ever flies again continues to be a matter of speculation.

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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