- Qatar Airways banned travellers from southern Africa after the announcement of the Omicron variant.
- It had been due to start accepting travellers from South Africa again on Sunday, in an un-banning announced as part of efforts to support South African tourism.
- Instead it cancelled those outbound flights at little notice, tell passengers the reasons were "operational".
- It told us little more – but a rolled-back notice on its website suggests it changed its mind on Omicron, and the World Health Organisation.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
On Sunday, Qatar Airways had been due to start carrying passengers out of South Africa again for the first time in weeks, dropping an important Omicron-related ban.
But the airline suddenly abandoned that plan on the weekend, leaving passengers in the lurch, and the South African government with egg on its face.
Qatar had been flying into South Africa during the ban, but refused to board anyone in South Africa for the return trip. On Friday it announced that would change two days later, in a press release that cited support for SA's tourism sector during the summer months.
Passengers rushed to buy tickets, and tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu noted the resumption of flights in a call for other restrictions on South Africa to be lifted.
?? MEDIA STATEMENT ??— Lindiwe Sisulu (@LindiweSisuluSA) December 10, 2021
Tourism Minister welcomes the return of source market flights
We will continue to call on all countries to follow the WHO advice, to rescind all selective travel bans and re-open their borders to South Africa. pic.twitter.com/eDErx59jyy
However, during the course of Saturday, the airline began notifying passengers it had cancelled their flights. In some cases, notifications reviewed by Business Insider South Africa show, Qatar Airways first confirmed the flights, then cancelled them only hours later. Some passengers were given less than a day's notice of the cancellation, and could get no answers on how to arrange a refund in time to use an alternative airline, if any could be found.
Qatar Airways responded to questions from Business Insider South Africa with a two-line statement, which read in full: "Due to operational reasons, Qatar Airways has unfortunately had to postpone the restart of outbound passenger services from South Africa for a short period of time. We apologise to our customers and recommend they contact their travel agent or visit www.qatarairways.com for further information."
Seats for flights out of South Africa are first available again on 31 December, according to the airline's website.
Operational flight cancellations are typically due to planes not being available, or trouble with maintenance, catering, or fuel, all of which have plagued airlines as the pandemic disrupted supply chains. But Qatar's website suggests it has reinstated its Omicron-induced ban.
On the weekend, that website had dropped South Africa from the list of African countries from which it said it would "no longer be accepting passengers".
During the course of Sunday morning, the airports in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban were added back to that banned list again.
That is alongside Luanda, Maputo, Lusaka, and Harare, which had been due to remain on the airline's red list when South Africa was removed.
In the new version of the notice, which includes South Africa, Qatar Airways no longer refers to guidance from the World Heath Organisation – which has come out strongly against travel bans.
The reintroduction of the ban was not accompanied by a press release, or a tweet, unlike the announcement of the un-banning on Friday.