Flights South Africa UK
(Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
  • UK airlines will restart direct flights to and from South Africa this week, after widespread cancellations stranded travellers.
  • With South Africa back on the red list, only returning British or Irish nationals, or travellers with residence rights, will be allowed to enter the UK.
  • British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly out from Johannesburg on Wednesday and will operate a reduced schedule going forward.
  • Most of these first flights out of South Africa are already sold out and available seats are costly.
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British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will resume flights between South Africa and the United Kingdom this week after services ground to a halt on Friday.

Travel between the UK and South Africa was thrown into a tailspin over the weekend, as word of a newly detected, highly mutated Covid-19 variant reverberated throughout the world. The discovery of Omicron was first announced by South Africa's Department of Health and scientists from the Network for Genomic Surveillance on Thursday.

Just hours after the briefing, the UK announced that travel from South Africa, and neighbouring countries, would be prohibited from midday Friday. Back on the red list, only British or Irish nationals, or travellers with residence rights in the UK, have been permitted to enter, with the controversial hotel quarantine programme back in full effect from 04:00 on Sunday.

See also | Travellers arriving from SA can avoid the UK’s R50,000 quarantine bill – if they’re poor enough

Restrictions on South African travellers – criticised by President Cyril Ramaphosa, scientists, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) – have since been imposed by dozens of countries.

In response to the UK government’s swift suspension of travel, major airlines grounded flights to and from South Africa.

Virgin Atlantic cancelled five flights between London Heathrow and Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport. British Airways also grounded its service to Johannesburg and Cape Town over the weekend. The flurry of cancellations stranded passengers in both countries and has disrupted thousands of travel plans ahead of South Africa’s busy summer season.

South Africa spent less than two months off the UK’s red list. An intense campaign led by the embattled tourism sector, which traditionally relies more on British travellers than visitors from any other country, saw South Africa removed from the red list in October.

In the weeks that followed that delisting, travel agencies and airlines were inundated with queries and bookings, promising a much-needed reprieve for South Africa’s tourism industry. International travel bans, particularly the UK’s red listing, have dashed hopes of a lucrative summer season.

But for those stranded travellers in the UK and South Africa there is some good news. Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will restart operations this week, with the first flights leaving South Africa on Wednesday.

“Following the reinstatement of South Africa on the UK Government’s ‘red list’, we’ve been actively reviewing our flying schedule and will be cancelling all passenger services from Johannesburg to London Heathrow until Wednesday 1 December, when flight VS450 is next scheduled to operate,” said a Virgin Atlantic spokesperson.

Flight VS450, departing OR Tambo International Airport at 08:55 on Wednesday, is almost fully booked. At the time of publication, the outbound flight only had two seats available in Premium Class, costing R24,409 each. Virgin Atlantic will operate a reduced flight schedule, with just three flights to London in the second week of December.

British Airways will also resume flights from South Africa to the UK on Wednesday, and airline spokesperson told Business Insider South Africa. Six flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg will operate between 1 December and 6 December.

Most of these British Airways’ flights have already been sold out, with only one seat left in business class departing Johannesburg on Saturday, costing almost R45,000, at the time of publication.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic flights heading from London to Johannesburg have more seats available than those leaving South Africa, but even these are selling quickly. Fewer than 10 seats were listed as available for flights departing Heathrow on Wednesday and Thursday at the time of publication.

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