Flights from Johannesburg to Cape Town
(Photo by: Edwin Remsberg/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
  • The number of passengers travelling between Johannesburg’s OR Tambo and Cape Town International airports more than halved in 2020.
  • But this domestic route was still ranked as the busiest on the continent.
  • Other routes between Cape Town, Lanseria and Durban lost ground in the rankings as flights in Nigeria and Kenya remained largely unaffected by local lockdown laws.
  • Flights between Zimbabwe and South Africa were the fullest intra-African trips prior to the pandemic but were overtaken by passengers travelling from Mitiga International Airport in Libya to Tunis in Tunisia in 2020.
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The number of passengers flying between Johannesburg and Cape Town more than halved in 2020 but it remains Africa’s busiest domestic route, with OR Tambo International still the most connected airport on the continent.  

African airlines lost close to R140 billion in passenger revenue in 2020, according to a recent report published by African Airlines Association (AFRAA). Coronavirus-related travel restrictions reduced passenger volumes by almost 64% compared to traffic in 2019, with the harshest losses recorded in the third quarter.

South Africa was plunged into hard lockdown at the end of March 2020, with domestic travel severely restricted until June and international borders only partially reopening in October. Airports servicing international arrivals were limited to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo, Cape Town International, Durban’s King Shaka, and Lanseria.

The number of domestic passengers travelling in 2020 was just 27% of the total local travellers recorded in the year prior, according to data provided by the Airports Company South Africa. Regional traffic to and from other African countries dropped by almost 93%.

But despite passenger volumes dropping from around 4 million in 2019 to less than 2 million in 2020, the route from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International to Cape Town International was still recorded as the busiest domestic flight path in Africa.

Flights from Johannesburg to Cape Town
African Airlines Association (AFRAA)
Flights from Johannesburg to Cape Town
African Airlines Association (AFRAA)

Other domestic routes fared far worse, losing ground to Nigeria’s popular Abuja-Lagos flights and Kenya’s Nairobi-Mombasa path.

The Durban to Johannesburg route held firm in second place – carrying just over a million passengers in 2020, compared to nearly 3 million in 2019 – but travel between Cape Town, Lanseria, and East London dropped in the rankings.

Cape Town to Lanseria and Cape Town to Durban were previously placed as the third and fourth busiest domestic routes in Africa in 2019. The Durban route was overtaken by Abuja-Lagos – which only recorded a slight decline in domestic passenger volumes – and Lanseria flights dropped from the top-ten rankings completely.

In 2019, 80% of the busiest domestic routes were between South African airports. This dropped to 60% in 2020 with routes between Lagos to Port Harcourt in Nigeria and Kumasi to Accra in Ghana entering the top-ten.

Flights from Johannesburg to Cape Town
African Airlines Association (AFRAA)
Flights from Johannesburg to Cape Town
African Airlines Association (AFRAA)

South Africa’s standing in the intra-African or regional rankings fell even further. The busiest regional flights in Africa were those between Zimbabwe’s Harare and Johannesburg in 2019 which carried some 4 million passengers. This dropped to just 1.5 million passengers in 2020.

The route between Mitiga International Airport in Libya and Tunis in Tunisia remained largely unaffected by travel restrictions, carrying roughly the same number of passengers – 3.5 million – in 2020 as it did the year prior.

Routes from Johannesburg to Windhoek and Mauritius were unseated from the regional rankings but flights to Bulawayo and from Gaborone took their place.

Despite this drop in domestic and regional rankings, the AFRAA still ranks Johannesburg’s OR Tambo as the most connected airport for inter-African travel. Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia came in at a close second, largely due to Ethiopian Airlines’ sustained flight frequency throughout the year when other airlines were cancelling routes amid travel restrictions.

(Compiled by Luke Daniel)

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