Ethiopian Airlines – oft cited as a possible SAA saviour – just did a local deal

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Ethiopian Airlines CemAir SAA
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2020/01/19: Ethiopian Airlines Airbus 350-900 taking off from London Heathrow airport. (Photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
  • Ethiopian Airlines, which is Africa’s largest airline by fleet size and destinations served, has partnered with CemAir.
  • The interline agreement allows both CemAir and Ethiopian passengers to travel on a single ticket, thereby avoiding having to check-in more than once.
  • Ethiopian offered to assist South Africa’s embattled flag carrier, but SAA has been unable to minimise its debt and deal with ongoing labour issues.
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Africa’s largest airline, Ethiopian, has announced a partnership with regional operators, CemAir, in the form of an interline agreement. This alliance connects smaller South African destinations to airports across five continents through single ticket travel which mitigates multiple check-ins and baggage collection.  

Amid the global downturn in aviation brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, Ethiopian Airlines continues to consistently service South Africa while other operators cancel flights due to regional restrictions. With almost 130 passenger aircraft flying to more than 100 international destinations, connecting flights to Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa is still the strongest link between Africa and the world.

This is especially true for Ethiopian’s South African flightpath, which, even during the height of the pandemic’s second wave, offers daily flights between Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International and Addis Ababa. Connecting flights to Europe and the Middle East come at a time when major airlines servicing these regions, namely British Airways and Emirates, respectively, have suspended flights due to heightened travel restrictions.

The partnership with CemAir, which services regional airports along the Garden Route and KwaZulu-Natal coast, offers greater ease of access to those travelling to or from South Africa. The interline agreement allows passengers booking with Ethiopian Airlines to travel through South Africa’s regional airports without needing to check-in again when connecting at larger hubs.

Previously, CemAir passengers would need to book two tickets when wanting to connect with Ethiopian Airline’s international itinerary. Similarly, international passengers entering South Africa via Ethiopian Airlines would also need to book two tickets if aiming to reach smaller regional destinations.

“Ethiopian is a strong partner and with the significant changes in the South African airline industry we look forward to working closely with them as we expand our network both domestically and beyond,” said CemAir CEO Miles van der Molen.

One of these major changes in the local airline industry, in addition to the challenges brought about by Covid-19, is the precarious position of South Africa’s flag carrier. South African Airways (SAA), which has been grounded for almost a year after being forced into business rescue in 2019, is unlikely to recover from a series of fierce financial and operational woes.

And while the business rescue plan has been adopted, SAA may still face liquidation should the administrators be unable to find equity partners, beyond government’s exorbitant and controversial bailout policy.

In October 2020, Ethiopian Airlines’ Chief Executive Officer Tewolde Gebremariam said that he was involved in discussions around partnering with SAA. The proposed venture involved Ethiopian Airlines providing planes, pilots, and maintenance to SAA through a deal with the South African government.

African Aviation Services (AAS) Chief Executive Nick Fadugba labelled Ethiopian Airlines as SAA’s “preferred strategic equity partner”.

SAA’s debilitating debt of R10 billion and ongoing labour issues are, however, elements of the venture which Gebremariam has not been willing to entertain. The Ethiopian boss has noted his willingness to return to the table if the South African government can solve these two thorny issues.

Until then, and amid the ongoing global pandemic, Ethiopian Airlines continues to strike codeshare and interline agreements with other operational outfits, while SAA’s future hangs in the balance.

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