SAA eyes flights to America – but South Africa's treatment of Delta isn't forgotten

Business Insider SA
SAA (Photo by Gallo Images/Jacques Stander)
SAA (Photo by Gallo Images/Jacques Stander)
  • SAA has applied for an extension of its existing exemptions for flights between South Africa and America with the US department of transportation.
  • The national carrier also wants its co-terminalisation rights to serve Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Washington, and Philadelphia reinstated.
  • These rights were revoked by the US government in 2021 in response to South Africa's treatment of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines.
  • Delta applied for Cape Town flights to be included as part of the existing Atlanta-Johannesburg route.
  • This request, lodged two years ago, was initially rejected and only recently approved by the South African government.
  • SAA hopes that Delta's approval, delayed as it may have been, will see its co-terminalisation rights reinstated by the US.
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South African Airways (SAA) wants to maintain its rights for flights to and from the United States, but a recent bilateral spat involving Delta Air Lines' application for a Cape Town stop has added a complication to the national carrier's bid.

South Africa's embattled flag carrier hasn't flown to the US in more than two years. But it's not about to let go of its flight rights, despite not currently having the capacity to service destinations in North America.

After years of mismanagement, financial losses, and contentious government bailouts, SAA emerged from a painful business rescue process in May 2021. Five months later, as a leaner airline with Takatso Consortium as its new strategic equity partner, SAA took to the skies after a lengthy break.

The national airline doesn't have as many planes, routes, or pilots as it did before entering business rescue and has been careful to expand its offering amid the coronavirus-induced aviation crisis.

This hasn't stopped the airline from holding onto previously awarded flight rights. A recent application, filed with the US department of transportation on 27 April, asked for an extension of its existing exemptions for flights between South Africa and America.

The request indicates that SAA may be eyeing flights to the US in the near future.

Under the US-South Africa bilateral air service agreement, SAA is permitted to transport people, property, and mail from South Africa, via intermediate points, to Miami, New York, and four other US airports. This agreement also extends to 25 other airports in the US on a codeshare-only basis with US-based airlines.

SAA's previous application for an extension in June 2021 was granted by the US.

But in extending SAA's existing exemptions for a year, the US department of transportation criticised the South African government for its refusal to allow Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines co-terminalisation rights for Cape Town.

Because of the way Delta's application for flights to Cape Town, as part of a triangular route between Atlanta, and Johannesburg, was handled, the US government denied SAA's exemption authority to serve Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Washington, and Philadelphia on a co-terminal basis.

Co-terminalisation refers to the right to serve two or more destinations in a specific territory, provided these points are contained along the same route.

In the case of Delta Air Lines, co-terminalisation in Cape Town would allow for a single flight operating between Atlanta, Johannesburg – already serviced – and Cape Town.

After a retort from the US and fierce criticism from the Western Cape government, Delta Air Lines was eventually granted the right to include Cape Town as part of a triangular route in April, almost two years after the initial application was lodged.

Now, SAA, in its request for renewals, says that because Delta has been awarded the right to fly to Cape Town, it, too, should have its co-terminalisation rights for the US reinstated.

"SAA now respectfully requests: (i) renewal of its existing exemptions, previously renewed on 15 June 2021; and (ii) reinstatement of its exemption authority to serve LAX, JFK, MIA, IAD, and PHL on a co-terminal basis, on the basis of recent grants of co-terminalisation rights to United Airlines and Delta by South African authorities."

While it's true that Delta was awarded co-terminalisation rights, United Airlines – which has also applied for flights between Washington DC and Cape Town – has denied applying for any such rights in recent years.

"However, United has not in recent years applied for any co-terminal authority from the South African government nor is United or its legal representative in South Africa aware of it having received grants of co-terminalisation rights by the South Africa Government," the US airline said in response to SAA's application.

"United does not object to the authority that South African Airways is seeking to serve a number of US points on a co-terminal basis. United is filing this answer solely to correct the record."

SAA's application with the US department of transportation is open for public comment until 11 May.

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