SA govt blocks Delta from flying to Cape Town – and the US in turn restricts SAA

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SAA Delta Cape Town
(Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
  • Delta Air Lines is hoping to return to South Africa in August.
  • But it's dropped its plans to stop in Cape Town and is instead focusing solely on a direct route between Atlanta in the US and Johannesburg.
  • Papers filed by the United States' department of transportation reveal that Delta was blocked from including Cape Town in its route by the South African government.
  • And in response, the US has decided to rescind certain exemptions previously offered to South African Airways.
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Delta Air Lines will resume flights from Atlanta to Johannesburg in August but will not service Cape Town, as was initially proposed, due to an objection by the South African department of transport.

Flightpaths between the United States and South Africa are slowly reopening after months of coronavirus-induced dormancy. United Airlines launched its inaugural non-stop flight between Newark and Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport on 4 June, while Delta Air Lines recently confirmed that it intends flying from its Atlanta hub on 1 August.

Both developments offer a glimmer of hope for South Africa's crippled tourism industry, despite the ongoing travel ban imposed by the US restricting the movement of locals looking abroad.

And although Delta's return to Johannesburg has been welcomed, its decision to abandon plans for a Cape Town stopover – first proposed in May 2020 – has raised questions.

"I will be urgently communicating with our national counterparts at all levels of government to review the circumstances that would allow the USA's Delta Air Lines to fly to Cape Town," said the City of Cape Town's Mayoral Member for Economic Opportunities, Tourism and Asset Management, James Vos, in a statement on Tuesday evening.

"Inconveniencing international travellers in this way could severely impact Cape Town – and thus South Africa's – tourism industry and hold back our post-covid recovery."

Papers filed by the US' department of transportation shortly before Delta confirmed its return to Johannesburg reveal that a regulatory stalemate resulted in the Cape Town route being abandoned. It was initially reported that Delta Air Lines had eyed Cape Town as a stopover in the triangle routing to maximise its payload carried by the Airbus A350-900 which had replaced the long-range 777-200LR.

"As a result of commercial, operational, and market developments making it feasible for Delta to operate a direct return routing of Atlanta-Johannesburg-Atlanta using 306-seat Airbus A350-900 aircraft, Delta no longer plans to operate the triangle routing of Atlanta-Johannesburg-Cape Town-Atlanta," the airline's application with the US' transportation department, dated 18 June, noted.

The real reason for this turnaround was, however, revealed in papers filed directly by the US' department of transportation in response to South African Airways (SAA) three days before Delta's filing.

Delta had sought a coterminalisation authority governed by the 1996 Air Transport Agreement between the US and South Africa. This would allow Delta to transport its own passengers onto Cape Town from Johannesburg.

"In April 2021, Delta Air Lines informed the department of its unsuccessful attempts to secure approval from the South Africa department of transportation to amend its Foreign Operator's Permit to allow a stop in Cape Town on the return segment of its Atlanta-Johannesburg service," the US department of transport noted in its responding papers. Silence from South Africa prompted repeated requests from the airline and even "further outreach" by the US government.

On 14 May, the South African department of transport rejected Delta's request, by noting it "does not confer domestic coterminalisation rights for designated airlines of both countries."

This rejection – and reasoning – by the South African government has perplexed the US department of transport.

"The department believes that the SADOT [South African Department of Transport] has chosen to unilaterally reinterpret the provisions of the Annex of the Agreement specifically to prevent Delta from exercising its bilateral right," the US noted.

"The US Government has raised its concerns at multiple levels and agencies of the government of South Africa, advising them that this SADOT reinterpretation could have possible ramifications for the authority SAA holds from the department."

"The US Government specifically advised the government of South Africa that those ramifications could include the rescinding of SAA's existing authority to coterminalise services in the United States."

"To date, the Government of South Africa has offered no meaningful response."

In response to SAA's application for the renewal of exemptions – in part, to operate flights between several US cities on a co-terminal basis – the US department cited the South African government's handling of Delta's request as reason to rescind coterminalisation previously rights afforded to the national carrier.

"While our preference would be to grant SAA renewal of all of the bilaterally authorised exemption authority it seeks, the SADOT has taken the position that the coterminalisation authority sought by Delta is not provided for in the Agreement," explained the US transportation department in its answer.

"We strongly disagree with that position, but our attempts to engage with the SADOT in order to reconcile this matter and vindicate the important US bilateral right at issue have not succeeded. Therefore, in the circumstances presented, we have tentatively decided that the public interest calls for denial of the portions of SAA's exemption renewal request…"

The decision by the US prohibits SAA from servicing Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C on a coterminal basis.

The initial rejection is unlikely to have any significant or immediate impact on SAA. The embattled national carrier, which recently exited a gruelling business rescue programme and has secured equity partners for its relaunch, is only looking to reinstitute long haul flights in 2023.

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