Comair grounding: Here's why other airlines won't be able to plug the gap any time soon

Business Insider SA
Kulula airline (Getty Images)
Kulula airline (Getty Images)
  • Comair, which operates Kulula and British Airways in South Africa, has grounded its flights amid a cash crunch, cutting 40% of the country's domestic seat capacity.
  • Other airlines are adding more flights to their rosters, but with operations already stretched after pandemic-induced cuts, the gap left by Comair won't be filled any time soon.
  • While finding additional aircraft remains a concern, getting trained pilots and cabin crew onboard is an even bigger challenge.
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South African airlines are attempting to bring more aircraft into the sky and up their frequencies on domestic routes in the wake of Comair's grounding of Kulula and British Airways flights. But it's not an easy nor quick process.

There's a critical shortage of supply in South Africa's domestic aviation market brought about by Comair's deep financial troubles. The airline company which operates Kulula and British Airways locally announced the suspension of all its flights at the end of May pending "additional funding".

Comair accounts for roughly 40% of South Africa's domestic seat capacity. Its sudden grounding has left passengers scrambling for other flights, echoing a similar capacity crunch experienced earlier this year when the company halted flights due to safety and security risks flagged by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA).

Tickets aboard South African carriers are now selling out faster than before, with travellers struggling to find affordable flights, even weeks in advance.

Capacity is likely to remain constrained, with no indication of when – or even if – Kulula and British Airways flights will resume under Comair's banner. Competing airlines have said they're increasing their own capacities to take on more passengers, but these additional seats won't be able to plug the gap left by Comair's grounding, at least not immediately.

"We have two key constraints. The first is actual metal, the aircraft, but the second and possibly the bigger is the crew," Kirby Gordon, FlySafair's chief marketing officer, told Business Insider South Africa.

"Pilots and cabin crew can't really work overtime, their hours are regulated as a safety measure to prevent fatigue."

Both the need for additional aircraft and crew presents a unique challenge for airlines looking to expand their offerings amid Comair's sudden suspension. It's not a simple task to bring more aircraft into the sky, especially for carriers operating on a tight budget, made even worse by the pandemic-induced travel lull.

"The question often asked is whether we could not just use other airline crew or aircraft, and unfortunately, it's not that simple," said Gordon.

"In order to actually operate an aircraft, you have to have it moved over to your operating license, which is a bit of a process both in terms of practical requirements and regulatory requirements. Crew also need to be trained by each airline, so it's not something one can just do quickly."

Factoring in the upcoming public holiday – Youth Day, which falls on a Thursday – and the June-July school holidays, the airline capacity issue is unlikely to be resolved in the next few months.

"We have already added a significant number of flights and are looking to add additional capacity in the coming weeks and months," said Jonathan Ayache, co-Founder and CEO of LIFT Airline, which only operates on a single route between Johannesburg and Cape Town.

"With our existing aircraft, we are already adding flights on days and times when we did not have previously scheduled flights. In addition to this, we are also looking to bring on additional aircraft."

South African Airways (SAA), which is also in a precarious financial position, said it, too, would increase its capacity. This, despite the airline having trimmed its fleet by more than 80% and its pilot staff by almost 70% since entering business rescue in December 2019.

"Having emerged from business rescue ourselves, we empathise with Comair and understand the difficulties caused by Covid and high fuel prices," said SAA's Interim Chairperson and Chief Executive, John Lamola.

"The team at SAA has been working hard to find solutions to help affected customers and is in the process of adjusting our flying programme to adding more seats between Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban."

SAA, which has the Takatso consortium, a partnership with Global Airways operating LIFT, as its new strategic equity partner, plans to grow its capacity by increasing flight frequencies "where possible".

The lack of capacity isn't the only issue making flights more expensive for South African travellers. The price of jet fuel has more than doubled in the last year, according to the Platts Jet Fuel Price Index. These massively inflated operating costs, coming in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic that stripped airlines of more than $200 billion, have added further strain, which will ultimately be felt by consumers.

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