If air travel ever goes back to pre-Covid-19 levels in SA, getting a seat may be tough

Business Insider SA
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(Constantine Johnny, Getty)

  • A lot of people used to fly between Johannesburg and Cape Town every day, and quite a lot between Durban and Joburg too.
  • With SAA facing radical restructure, and Comair going into business rescue, just one South African airline still has a big fleet expected to go back into service in a post-Covid-19 world.
  • But if the number of passengers who want to travel normalises, there may not be enough seats for everyone.
  • For mores stories go to

In a typical year, six million people fly between Johannesburg and Cape Town. At approximately 16,000 passengers per day, the roughly 1,200 kilometre flight follows a route that consistently ranks as Africa’s busiest.

The route between Johannesburg and Durban isn’t far behind: some 12,000 people boarded flights between those two cities every day in 2019, according to figures by global aviation data company OAG, formerly the Official Aviation Guide.

But as Comair, the parent company of Kulula and the local operator of British Airways flights, follows South African Airways into business rescue, the future of affordable – or even sufficient – flights between these destinations hangs in the balance.

READ at Fin24 | owner Comair goes into business rescue

Comair says its business rescue move is designed to make the airline more "efficient, agile and customer-centric”. It reported a half-year loss of R564 million for the first half of 2020

Many of the world’s airlines - with far fewer complications than those of Comair - are staring down bankruptcy because of Covid-19, and the closure of Kulula could mean a drastic shortage of available seats in local airspace.

Kulula was South Africa’s first low-cost carrier, after starting out with just a single leased plane servicing the Joburg to Cape Town route. 

In its 19-year existence, the airline has expanded to include ten planes on multiple domestic and regional routes.

British Airways in South Africa also bolsters many of Kulula’s local routes.

Last year, Comair says, it operated 44,185 flights, and carried six million passengers, in its 25 aircraft, shared between its British Airways and Kulula brands. Although this includes regional flights, the majority took place within South Africa.

With South African Airways likely to face drastic restructuring, if it is to survive at all, it could potentially leave just one major domestic airline, FlySafair, to handle the majority of domestic routes.

Should local flying habits eventually return to some level or normality, this could mean a significant shortfall between airline supply and demand in South Africa.

FlySafair currently has a relatively large fleet of 16 Boeing 737s, which at full capacity can collectively accommodate just under 3,000 passengers. The airline currently operates 83 daily flights per day with these aircraft - for a maximum passenger load of just 15,000.

In a best-case scenario, a single carrier like FlySafair may just be able to cater for close to the required traffic between Johannesburg and Cape Town, but other smaller routes may be entirely unserved.

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