Executive Insights

Bruce Whitfield: South Africa’s most punctual airline is pretty much what I guessed

Business Insider SA
Photo 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee South Africa/Getty Images
  • The national carrier’s time-keeping is pretty good, but not as good as an industry newcomer.
  • If you are in a hurry and choosing a low cost carrier, green and orange liveries should not be your first choice.
  • Perhaps the way to fix delays is to raise on time targets.

It’s just before midnight and MN125, the Kulula.com flight I have taken fairly regularly, is delayed. Again. This requires a little investigation into SA airlines on time record.

I fly around the country a lot for work and as a result have a pretty good handle on airlines.

Before I do the research, here is my experience:

Kulula: most delays I experience are on this airline. Its aircraft are the most cramped and generally are in the worst repair of the domestic carriers.
BA: mostly on time. Aircraft though feel past their best, and pricing is often not particularly competitive.
SAA: nearly always on time. Great crews. Aircraft always in good condition. Fares have escalated dramatically in recent months as the airline has handed aircraft to its low-cost subsidiary Mango.
Mango: usually on time. Good aircraft. Decent legroom due to good seat configuration. No frills. No fuss.

FlySafair: best on time-keeping. Good booking engine that recognises regular travellers making its online bookings the quickest of the lot. Great aircraft configuration. Similar to Mango, meaning a decent amount of space.

Now to see what the numbers say.

The Airports Company of SA (Acsa) measures on time departures in line with international standards. It’s measured from the moment the aircraft pushes back from its blocks, against scheduled departure.

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) considers anything within 15 minutes of the scheduled time to be “on-time”. 

Globally, airports are also judged by their ability to get aircraft airborne on time. Badly-run airports can mean boarding and ground-support delays, which can have a significant knock on effect on airline schedules. Global experience has shown airlines are prone to cheat the system, and some have been known to push back (thus registering an on time departure) only to idle on the apron while final details on board are brought up to scratch.

So do my experiences match reality with official figures published by Acsa?

OR Tambo has a target of ensuring 87% of domestic flights leave on time. Airports are complex places. Weather, aircraft, traffic and passenger delays wreak havoc with schedules, hence a lower target than a 100% goal you might expect.

Just 3 out of 9 domestic carriers out of SA’s busiest airport meet that target. FlySafair comes out top with 93% of its flights on time year to date, followed by SAA at nearly 90%, and Airlink on 87%. The rest all miss the target, and Kulula is on time just 79% of the time. Interestingly, it scores better than Mango.

Cape Town International aims to have 90% of flights off on time.

SAA scores highest out of that airport, followed by FlySafair and Airlink just missing the on-time target. Kulula again beats Mango.

You are most likely to embark on your journey on time out of King Shaka than any other SA airport of size; it has an on-time target of 91%.

It has fewer slots, which means that a single delay can have a disproportionate impact on overall performance. Again, FlySafair is tops and SAA second. Kulula manages to get away from King Shaka on time 82% of the time, but is pipped here, by Mango.

For now, 190 grumpy Kulula passengers wait for a replacement aircraft to land. Hopefully this one is in working order.

Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award winning financial journalist and broadcaster.

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