US' Delta and United were fighting for new flights to Cape Town – now, both get a piece

Business Insider SA
(Photo by Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Photo by Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
  • The United States' Delta and United airlines both want three new weekly flights each to Cape Town.
  • But there aren't enough open flight frequencies within the existing bilateral agreement to give both Delta and United what they want.
  • So, for the past five months, both airlines have been arguing their cases before the US department of transport.
  • After further bilateral engagements, the South African department of transport is considering adding another two frequencies to the agreement.
  • America fully expects that South Africa "will honour its commitment" and has made the tentative decision to grant Delta and United's full requests.
  • For more stories go to

United States carriers Delta and United have both been battling it out for the last remaining frequencies for new flights to Cape Town. After bilateral engagements, both have been awarded an equal share if the South African government keeps its word.

The battle for Cape Town has been raging since February, with competing US airlines vying for new routes. This comes after two years of pandemic-induced travel disruptions that saw American tourists become South Africa's most valuable, with more arrivals from the US than from the United Kingdom and Germany.

Delta and United, looking to capitalise on the momentum, both applied for additional flights to Cape Town with the United States' department of transport (DOT).

Delta's application in February – which ran concurrently with a bid to service Cape Town as part of a triangular route with Johannesburg and Atlanta – called for three weekly flights directly to the Mother City, using the Airbus A350.

United, which already operates Newark to Johannesburg and Newark to Cape Town, applied for three weekly flights between Washington and the Mother City, using the Boeing 787, in March.

Both applications wanted flights to start in November to benefit from South Africa's busy summer season.

But there was a problem which pitted both airlines against each other, requiring Delta and United to argue their respective cases with the US DOT.

The existing bilateral agreement between the US and South Africa limits the number of flights that can operate between the two countries. Only four additional weekly frequencies were available, while six flights were applied for in total by Delta and United.

"Leading up to and during the course of this proceeding, the department [US DOT] has engaged in a number of bilateral communications with the Department of Transport of the Republic of South Africa [SADoT], seeking to negotiate an exchange of extrabilateral opportunities," noted an Order published by the US DOT on Thursday 14 July.

"The Department specifically requested two additional frequencies in order to accommodate the increase in US carrier demand for passenger service to South Africa. On 22 June 2022, the SADoT advised that upon certain conditions being met, the two extra frequencies requested shall be considered as espoused in the agreement."

The US DOT's Order, signed by Annie Petsonk, the assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs, added that it "fully expects that SADoT will honour its commitment." Two additional frequencies, as requested by the US DOT and considered by South Africa's department of transport, allow both airlines' applications to be granted in full.

"In these circumstances, the department [US DOT] tentatively finds that the public interest would be best served by allocating three weekly frequencies to Delta for its proposed Atlanta-Cape Town service, and three weekly frequencies to United for its proposed Washington, DC-Cape Town service…"

This tentative decision, reliant on South Africa granting these two additional frequencies before its deadline and airlines filing applications with the department of transport "as soon as possible", will see six new US flights coming to Cape Town later this year.

"If no objections are filed, the department [US DOT] will deem all further procedural steps to be waived and will proceed to enter a final order awarding the authority as proposed in this order," noted the US DOT.

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