Keen to fly, but will they survive? Airlines weigh in on partial lift of flight bans

(iStock)
(iStock)

Airlines could soon be seeing travellers trickling in as restrictions are slowly eased. But whether it will be economically viable for airlines in South Africa to start operating again during lockdown Level 3, which starts on 1 June, remains to be seen.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday night that domestic air travel may be phased in during lockdown Level 3, starting with business travel only. The dates for such a start must still be announced, and SA's borders will remain closed for international travel, except for the transport of goods and repatriation of nationals.

But some industry representatives remain skeptical. 

"The announcement by President Ramaphosa is welcomed. The ultimate objective to ensure viability of the industry is to work towards aviation operations without restrictions," says Chris Zweigenthal, CEO of the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (Aasa).

There are lead times to get airports and aircraft ready and to open reservations to see what demand exists. Clarification is needed on what would be included in domestic business travel and how it will be determined what is allowed and what not.

"It will be a slow ramp up from the zero base existing now. Our estimation is that by December the domestic traffic will likely only be about 60% of what it was before," Zweigenthal.

Aasa will work with the Department of Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority to see if it can further develop operations in the interests of government and all stakeholders. It will consult with them to determine what will be allowed.

Millions of jobs at risk 

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) – the trade association for the world's airlines – is urging the SA government, as well as other African countries, to consider ways in which they can help the continent's airline industries to survive coronavirus lockdowns and flight bans.IATA estimates that airlines in Africa have likely already lost in total about $6 billion (about R106 billion) due to the pandemic and related flight bans, placing about 3.1 million jobs in the aviation and related industries are at risk on the continent.

Kirby Gordon, head of sales and distribution at low-cost airline Flysafair, says it is not yet certain if commencing operations under Level 3 would be feasible.

"We're eager to fly again as soon possible, and we respect that air connectivity will be key for rebuilding our economy, but it's not realistic for us to begin operations without viable demand, unless the government steps us to support our operations," says Gordon

This could be achieved in a number of ways, for example, by waiving the fees levied by state-owned enterprises like Airports Company SA, Air Traffic and Navigation Services, the CAA and SA Weather Service.

"While the president has indicated that flights for business reasons will be permitted, we are of the understanding that some very specific restrictions are likely to apply. We need to understand what these are, and how they couple with an already reduced demand for business travel due to travel restrictions and work-from-home policies implemented by many businesses in South Africa," explains Gordon.

As for state-owned regional airline SA Express, according to its provisional liquidator, Aviwe Ndyamara of the Tshwane Trust Company, under provisional liquidation there is no indication that there will be a restart of operations.

A spokesperson for JSE-listed Comair, which operates its own low-cost airline Kulula.com as well as British Airways domestically under a license agreement, says the very goal of  having gone into business rescue to brace the lockdown period, is to restructure the company into "a sustainable business and play its part in the country's airline industry and economic revival".

While Comair finds Ramaphosa's latest announcement encouraging, it lacks detail as to when air travel may be permitted or to what extent.

"Until we have this information and are able to assess market conditions, we will continue to work towards a return to service in November," said the spokesperson.

Nico Bezuidenthout, CEO of South African Airways' subsidiary Mango, said the low-cost airline plans to start operating following the announcement for the date on which it can restart.

"We will have to start conservatively to see what demand there is," says Bezuidenhout.

Airlink CEO Rodger Foster is ready, willing and able to operate domestic air services as soon as government releases details of the phased in easing of domestic flights for business travel.

"Air transport is well regulated, and most airlines are highly compliant and uphold the highest international safety and hygiene standards. Therefore, the risk of Covid-19 transmission during air travel is lower than other modes of public transport," says Foster.

More than 70% of Airlink's customers make use of its services throughout Southern Africa for business travel purposes.

Foster points out that many of South Africa's SADC neighbours are dependent on the wellbeing of South Africa's economy and on the Johannesburg hub as their means to air access.

"We are therefore keen to see unrestricted air travel domestically and internationally within Africa and intercontinentally at the earliest opportunity.

South African Airways (SAA), which is currently in business rescue, said in a statement it will retain its domestic schedule between Johannesburg and Cape Town, with effect from mid-June 2020. This position will be reviewed on an ongoing basis.
 
At the same time, SAA is cancelling all planned scheduled flights on regional and international services until the end of June 2020 with immediate effect. This decision has been taken as a result of the continuing global impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Customers holding unused SAA tickets will be able to use the full value as a credit for travel on any SAA service up to an including 24th March 2022. SAA will also permit a free name change.

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