Omicron didn't stop South Africans from flying around in December

Business Insider SA
South Africa travel
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  • South Africa's traditionally busy tourist season was hurt by international travel bans imposed because of Omicron.
  • But data from Airports Company South Africa shows that Omicron didn't stop locals from flying to major airports in December.
  • Johannesburg's OR Tambo, Cape Town International, and Durban's King Shaka airport all saw an increase in passenger volumes compared to 2020.
  • But these volumes are still far off pre-pandemic levels, indicating a painfully slow recovery of the airline industry.
  • For more stories go to

South Africa's airports were still a hive of activity during the traditionally busy December period, despite the discovery of the Omicron variant and return of international travel bans.

The global aviation sector has suffered staggering losses during the pandemic, with travel bans, capacity constraints, and Covid-19 fears resulting in losses of close to $51.8 billion. South Africa's airlines and airports haven't been spared.

Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) recorded its worst financial results in history with a net loss of R2.6 billion. The number of passengers passing through Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport dropped by more than 80% in 2020 compared to the previous financial year. Similar downturns were experienced at Cape Town International Airport and King Shaka International Airport in Durban.

South Africa travel
Passenger data (international, regiona, domestic, and unscheduled arriving and departing passengers) from Airports Company South Africa (ACSA).

Additional waves of Covid-19, driven by new variants, resulting in harsher lockdown restrictions at various points in 2021, did little to aid the airline industry's rebound. Data supplied by ACSA shows a correlation between Covid-19 waves, rising infections and downturns in passenger volumes at all three major airports.

The exception to this has been South Africa's fourth wave, which resulted in the highest infection rates but no harsher lockdown restrictions, driven by Omicron.

South Africa's Network for Genomic Surveillance announced the discovery of the Omicron variant in late November. The country was swiftly rewarded with international travel bans and flight suspensions, resulting in a flurry of cancellations.

South Africa travel
Passenger data (international, regiona, domestic, and unscheduled arriving and departing passengers) from Airports Company South Africa (ACSA).

And while ACSA reports an unsurprising downturn in international passengers during December, the airline crisis wasn't as grim as first anticipated, with strong domestic volumes offsetting foreign losses.

See also | Locals saved Cape Town's December tourism season – and may be rewarded with lower prices in future

International arrivals at OR Tambo dropped by around 23%, while Cape Town's foreign visitors dropped by 18%. This decline is worse when taking seasonal adjustments into account, with pre-pandemic traffic generally increasing by around 18% in December. Still, both airports welcomed close to 150,000 international arrivals in December, down from around 190,000 in November.

The number of domestic passengers travelling to and from Johannesburg's OR Tambo increased by around 8% in December. This is in line with pre-pandemic changes, although 36% lower in terms of overall passenger volume.

Durban's King Shaka saw a 13% increase in passengers coming and going in December

Domestic passenger volumes through Cape Town International Airport increased by almost 18% in December. 

South Africa travel
Passenger data (international, regiona, domestic, and unscheduled arriving and departing passengers) from Airports Company South Africa (ACSA).

And although the overall volume – combined international, regional, and domestic passengers arriving and departing – across South Africa's three major airports has increased by almost 60% in December 2021 compared to the same month in 2020, it's still a long way off pre-pandemic levels. 

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