South African airlines
(Getty Images)
  • South African airlines' flight volumes have been depleted over the past year.
  • The latest lockdown laws, which restrict travel to and from Gauteng, have grounded three major airlines.
  • LIFT, Kulula, and British Airways won't operate in July.
  • Mango, FlySafair, Cemair, and Airlink are still in the sky.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

South African airlines have suffered severe pandemic-induced financial losses over the past 15 months, with the latest round of lockdown restrictions grounding major carriers.

Passenger volumes between Cape Town and Johannesburg – Africa's busiest domestic route – halved in 2020. Losses incurred by the continent's airlines topped $10 billion (more than R140 billion). Ongoing restrictions and a general reluctance to resume leisure travel are expected to result in losses of more $8 billion (R115 billion) in 2021, according to the African Airlines Association.

South Africa's aviation sector has been one of the hardest hit by extended travel restrictions due to the emergence of the Delta variant, a slow vaccine rollout, and a third wave of Covid-19 infections which has resulted in tighter lockdown measures. Initial projections by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) showed that 250,000 jobs in the industry were at risk along with the R70 billion contribution to South Africa's economy.

Although African airlines have recovered at a quicker rate compared to the international industry – largely because of increased cargo volumes – South African carriers were recently dealt a further blow by the ban of leisure travel in and out of Johannesburg.

Adjusted Alert Level 4 lockdown restrictions, first implemented on 28 June and recently extended to 25 July, have grounded at least three major local airlines and reduced the flight frequencies of others. Here's a look at the current state of South Africa's embattled aviation sector and airline companies.

Kulula (Comair) - Grounded

Established two decades ago, Kulula is operated by Comair Limited and services seven airports in South Africa. The lost-cost airline has a fleet of nine aircraft which fly between Cape Town International Airport, George Airport, Lanseria International Airport, Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport (Gqeberha), East London Airport, King Shaka International Airport, and OR Tambo International Airport.

Prior to the pandemic, Kulula had an on-time performance (OTP) – measuring the airline's punctuality – of 78%, lower than the international average of 83.7%. OTP indicates that an aircraft has departed within 15 minutes of its scheduled departure time.

Kulula's fleet consists primarily of Boeing 737-800s which can seat 189 single-class passengers.

The airline's flight schedule was suspended – due to the travel restrictions imposed on Gauteng – on 5 July, with the intention to restart on 31 August.

British Airways (Comair) - Grounded

British Airways is operated by Comair in South Africa. At the onset of the pandemic, Comair entered voluntary business rescue and delisted from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange a year later. The airline company transported some six million passengers in 2019, an increase of 3% from the year prior.

British Airways has a pre-pandemic OTP score of 79%, dropping from 85% the year prior.

The airline's fleet of 17 aircraft service airports in Cape Town, Durban, Gqeberha, East London, and Johannesburg in South Africa. It also offers regional flights to Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia although these have been limited over the past year due to the pandemic.

Like Kulula, the airline was grounded on 5 July and aims to resume operations on 31 August.

LIFT - Grounded

South Africa's newest airline, LIFT, first took to the skies in December 2020. It operates three Airbus A320-200s – through Global Aviation – and flies exclusively between Cape Town International Airport and Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport.

During its first month of flying, LIFT was able to achieve an OTP score of 100%.  

With cabin crew kitted by Superbalist and on-board catering handled by Vida e Caffe, LIFT's entry into the market was a breath of fresh air at a time of severe strain in the aviation sector.

Co-founder Gidon Novick – the founder of Kulala – was recently named as the CEO of Takatso Consortium, the entity tasked with reviving the embattled national carrier, South African Airways (SAA).

Like Kulula and British Airways, LIFT's flights remain grounded until 1 August.

Mango

As a subsidiary of SAA, Mango's operations have been severely impacted over the past year due to financial constraints and lockdown-related travel restrictions. Outstanding payments to the Airport Company SA (ACSA), as a result of SAA's business rescue process, led to the airline grounding flights at the end of April and into May.

Founded in 2006 as a low-cost competitor to Kulula, Mango flies a fleet of nine Boeing 737-800s to Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, George, Johannesburg, East London, and Gqeberha. Mango carried some three million passengers prior to the pandemic and SAA's business rescue process and had an OTP score 82.8%.

Despite lockdown restrictions, Mango continues to operate in South Africa although its exclusive direct route to Zanzibar remains suspended.

FlySafair

Established in 2013, FlySafair is a low-cost airline which has seen a meteoric rise in popularity. Its domestic passenger volumes grew to three million within five years and was voted the most on-time airline in the world in 2017 with a score of almost 96%. By 2020, FlySafair has become South Africa's largest domestic carrier by passenger volume.

FlySafair operates a fleet of 17 aircraft – mostly Boeing 737-800s with a few 737-400s – across Cape Town, Johannesburg (OR Tambo and Lanseria), George, Gqeberha, Durban and East London. The airline plans to introduce flights to Mauritius – its first venture outside of South Africa – once travel restrictions have been eased.

The airline has continued to uphold its flight frequency throughout the pandemic – in line with local travel restrictions – with minimal adjustments made to accommodate flights around curfew.

Airlink

Airlink, which separated from SAA in 2020, is the largest South African-based airline on fleet size. Operating 48 aircraft – produced primarily by Embraer and dominated by the ERJ135LR which can carry 37 passengers – across more than 40 destinations, Airlink has the largest regional footprint of any carrier currently operating in South Africa.

In addition to flying between 18 destinations in South Africa, Airlink also flies to Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Its Lodge Link service also offers flights to popular safari lodge airstrips located at Arathusa, Londolozi, and Phinda Private Game Reserve.

Airlink, which recently recorded an OTP of 97.87%, continues to operate during Adjusted Alert Level 4 lockdown, although some regional flights have been disrupted by travel restrictions in other parts of Africa.

CemAir

Founded in 2005, CemAir operates a fleet of 13 regional jets produced by Bombardier and the turboprop-powered De Havilland. The airline suffered a major setback in 2018, when the South African Civil Aviation Authority withdrew the Certificate of Airworthiness for 12 CemAir aircraft.

The airline was grounded in December of that year. This grounding was overturned in May 2019, with Aircraft Operating Certificates successfully renewed in October.

Since then, CemAir has rebounded, signing interline agreements with Qatar and Ethiopian Airlines. The airline currently flies to Bloemfontein, Cape Town, George, Johannesburg, Margate, Plettenberg Bay, and Kimberley.

South African Airways

The national carrier entered business rescue in December 2019, with flights severely disrupted in the first half of 2020 and the airline grounded following South Africa's move to Level 5 lockdown at the end of March.

This business rescue process, which sought to secure an equity partner and use more than R10 billion to settle outstanding debts, was completed on 30 April 2021. Two months later it was announced that Takatso Consortium would own 51% of the new SAA, signifying a shift from the previous state-owned involvement.

SAA won't take to domestic skies before September – with international routes touted for November – and when it does return, the national carrier will be operating a much smaller fleet and have a smaller staff contingent.

The airline currently owns a fleet of 12 aircraft, comprised of Airbus A319-131s, A330-343s, A340-313s, and A340-642s.

(Compiled by Luke Daniel)

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