You won't easily find cheap flights to and from SA for the foreseeable future

Business Insider SA
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
  • International air travel is recovering after two dismal years of border closures, flight suspensions, and strict entry requirements.
  • But airlines, decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic and reeling from massive losses, are lagging behind the rise in demand.
  • South Africans wanting to travel abroad will need to pay a lot more than they did before the pandemic.
  • And that's not just because of the undersupply issue but also a result of rising jet fuel prices emanating from the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
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International airlines can't keep up with the demand for travel to and from South Africa, resulting in stubbornly high airfares made even worse by soaring fuel prices.

After two years under lockdown, South Africans are returning to the skies with their eyes set on overseas destinations. The Covid-19 pandemic drastically disrupted air travel, with border closures, sudden flight suspensions, and mandatory quarantine measures keeping most would-be travellers firmly on the ground.

And while much of the world has reopened and testing protocols have eased, international airlines, still reeling from $700 billion in lost revenue since the start of the pandemic, are struggling to meet the demand.

In South Africa, the number of international passengers arriving at OR Tambo International Airport in the first quarter of 2021 increased by around 20% compared to the quarter prior. International arrivals in March, according to data from Airports Company South Africa, were at their highest levels since the start of the pandemic.

Demand for travel to and from South Africa is recovering quicker than supply, according to Oz Desai, GM of Corporate Traveller, a division of the Flight Centre Travel Group. Desai estimates that demand, specifically in the business travel market, grew to 80% of pre-pandemic levels in March, while supply remained at just 65%.

Demand outstripping supply, as is currently the case, does not bode well for South African travellers looking for a bargain. This situation was recently replicated domestically when the grounding of Comair's British Airways and flights removed 40% of the local airline capacity, sending local airfares soaring and warranting a warning from South Africa's Competition Commission.

"We are currently seeing a combination of pent-up demand and limited supply," Desai told Business Insider South Africa.

"As a result of the Covid pandemic, some airlines have stopped flying internationally, while others have not returned to full operation yet. Pricing will always be more competitive when demand is less than supply. That is currently not the case."

This phenomenon isn't just impacting passengers travelling to and from South Africa. In the United States, for example, data shows a 40% rise in airfare since the start of 2022.

And it's not just the undersupply issue making air travel more expensive. The economic fallout from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has driven up the price of jet fuel.

"Regardless of supply and demand, the oil price will likely have a huge impact on airfares. Whereas previously airlines used to review prices every Tuesday, they are now continuously adjusting fares," explained Desai.

And while oil price volatility is likely to last as long as tensions in Russia and Ukraine persist, it's difficult to predict when – or even if – supply and demand will return to normal.

"It is difficult to say whether demand and supply will ever return to pre-pandemic levels," said Desai.

"It is important to keep in mind, however, that the travel industry is recovering from what has arguably been the most challenging time in the travel and tourism [sector's] history. This will undoubtedly lead to some unexpected situations. Our industry is well on the way to full recovery, but it will take a little time."

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