Cape Town Airport
Cape Town International Airport. (Photo by Petri Oeschger/Getty Images)
  • If Pretoria were about 175km closer to London, things would have been different.
  • But thanks to that distance, flights between the UK and South Africa could get a lot more expensive.
  • The UK is expected to this week announce an update to its system for taxing flights based on distance.
  • If, as expected, it imposes a new band for flights 5,500 miles or more from London, that will hit just a handful of countries – including South Africa.
  • The distance is measured between capital cities, so South Africa could attract more British visitors by naming Louis Trichardt its capital.
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On Wednesday, the United Kingdom's Chancellor of the Exchequer is due to present his Autumn Budget and Spending Review to that country's Parliament. It may contain something of a bombshell for South Africa: a dramatic jump in the price of a flight between Britain and SA, with the potential to inflict new pain on a tourist industry heavily reliant on UK tourists.

All because South Africa is about 175km too far away from Britain.

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is now widely expected to announce reforms to the UK's system of air passenger duty (APD), its principal tax on the aviation sector, through which it raised £3.6 billion in the 2019/2020 year.

Right now, the duty splits the world into two bands, for two starkly different rates of tax: countries within 2,000 miles of the UK, and those farther than that. That makes Europe, and a bit of North Africa, cheaper to fly to for Brits than all other countries, but makes no distinction between the likes of India and Australia, even though Australia is twice as far away.

If Sunak follows an approach favoured by his treasury, he will change that two-band system into one of three bands: countries up to 2,000 miles away; those between 2,000 miles and 5,500 miles; and those farther away than 5,500 miles. The idea is to have a "polluter pays" approach that actively discourages long flights with punitive rates, so for those longest flights, the tax will be high enough to discourage such travel.

Measured from capital city to capital city, as the APD system does, South Africa is just over 5,600 miles away from the United Kingdom.

The same is not true for Zimbabwe or Namibia, which fall inside the 5,500 mile limit.

Country-to-country distances, as measured for purp
Country-to-country distances, as measured for purposes of the UK's air passenger duty. (Source: UK Treasury)

The distance to South Africa is over the 5,500 mile limit – in metric terms some 175km – is so slight that South Africa could avoid the higher tax by declaring the more northerly town of Louis Trichardt its capital.

There has been little indication what the actual rate of tax would be on flights to South Africa, but it won't be cheap. Right now the rate for economy-class passengers in the 2,000-mile band is £80, or some R1,600 added to the cost of a return flight. (APD is levied only on flights leaving the UK, not inbound flights.) That is more than six times the rate for shorter flights, those that fall within Europe.

If the same differential were to be used in the new three-tier system, the difference between a flight of 5,499 miles and one of 5,501 miles would start approaching the equivalent of tens of thousands of rands. UK travellers would be able to avoid that expense by going to virtually any other country on the continent – or anywhere in much of the rest of the world.

That is not accidental; the UK treasury has been blunt about the intent of reforming air passenger duty. In a March review, the treasury said aviation is responsible for some 8% of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions, but that is expected to rise as sectors such as manufacturing and electricity decarbonise – following clear plans already in place.

The UK is committed to net zero carbon by 2050, and it needs the aviation sector to pull its weight, especially when it comes to the longest international flights.

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