Open more airports, routes if SA airlines are to survive - industry body

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The chances of South Africa's airlines surviving the devastating impact of the coronavirus flight bans and their ability to contribute to economic repair in the country, will depend on how soon more airports and routes can open, says Chris Zweigenthal, CEO of the Airlines Association of Southern Africa.

AASA's members include all the domestic airlines in South Africa, most airlines in the SADC region and the Indian Ocean islands, and many of the region's major airports.

All flights were grounded when the national lockdown started at the end of March. AASA sees the phased resumption of South African domestic passenger air services, although on a limited basis, as a positive move.

Under lockdown level 3 restrictions, which came into force on Monday, local airlines are permitted to offer flights for business travellers on the main trunk routes linking Johannesburg - both OR Tambo and Lanseria airports - Cape Town and Durban. Operations will take place under stringent health and biosecurity conditions.

The next phase, government has said, will depend on the success of the first.

Capital outlays

"The start-up phase will be difficult for all carriers as it involves significant financial outlays before any revenues have been generated. Most carriers worldwide, including South Africa, only had about two months of cash reserves in late March 2020, when the travel restrictions were imposed, bringing the industry to a sudden halt," says Zweigenthal.

He says the protocols, including screening of people entering, being put in place by the four airports as well as airlines will be monitored to see how it works and what needs to be changed.

"We want to make sure the main airports are working well and then move on to the next phase of trying to open more airports in the country. For that reason, there will be an assessment in startup phase of the main four airports to see how it is working and what can be tweaked. Then we can start adding more airports and routes," says Zweigenthal.

"It is crucial that the new systems are given appropriate capacity by Port Health so they can be stress-tested as quickly and rigorously as possible. Only then will the reconnection of other inland and coastal cities be phased in. The sooner this occurs, the better as survival of airlines and their ability to support the repair of the local and national economies are entirely dependent on this."

Intra-Africa regional and inter-continental long-haul flights will only resume when there is mutual agreement between nations to re-open their borders for passenger traffic other than ad hoc repatriation charter flights.

"AASA will continue to work with the authorities and the tourism sector to support the re-introduction of these services," says Zweigenthal.

"AASA is supporting the call for the South African government to specifically direct financial aid to the air transport sector – on an ownership-agnostic basis – as all airlines and associated service providers are vital to the country’s economic revival. Without an efficient air transport system, South Africa's economic recovery will be prolonged and painful."

Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) announced on Tuesday that it has put in place extensive physical measures, standard operating procedures and staff training necessary to give effect to the lockdown Level 3 regulations announced by the Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula.

ACSA spokesperson Gopolang Peme says the measures implemented are comprehensive and cover every aspect of the passenger’s journey from an airport entrance to boarding an aircraft.

Significant changes

Passengers will find that the airport environment has changed considerably, says Peme. In particular, the new procedures take time and passengers should arrive at the airport at least two hours before the scheduled departure.

IATA said on Wednesday that African airlines' air traffic sank 98.7% in April, nearly twice as bad as the 49.8% demand drop in March. Capacity contracted 87.7%, and the load factor dived 65.3 percentage points to just 7.7% of seats filled - the lowest among all regions in the world.

IATA found that the average aid in Africa is around 1% ($0.8 billion) of the 2019 revenues of airlines on the continent compared to about 25% of their 2019 revenues received in aid by North American airlines, 15% received by European airlines and 10% of revenues received by airlines in the Asia-Pacific region.

Relief mechanisms at government's disposal include deferrals and waivers of taxes and statutory charges as well as user fees for airports, air navigation and weather services, loans and loan guarantees to enable the raising of debt in the capital markets, direct aid with wage subsidies and cash injections to help industry players cover unavoidable costs during the restart phase.

South African airlines have taken a varied approach to the restart, depending on their capacity and resources. Privately-owned regional airline Airlink will launch a limited scheduled domestic air service from Monday 8 June, with flights on the Johannesburg-Cape Town and Johannesburg-Durban trunk routes.

Low-cost airline FlySafair has announced that it plans to offer between 20 and 26 flights per day from mid-June.

JSE-listed Comair, which operates and British Airways locally, is in business rescue, and has said it does not foresee operating flights before October or November. Similarly, state-owned airline South African Airways is also in business rescue and only flying ad hoc repatriation and cargo flights. It is unclear whether it will start regular domestic flights, as a business rescue plan for the airline is expected to be submitted by 8 June.

State-owned regional airline SA Express is already in provisional liquidation and its provisional liquidator has indicated that he does not foresee it resuming flights in its current situation.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) urged governments on Monday to quickly implement the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO's) global guidelines for restoring air connectivity.

The ICAO Council has approved a comprehensive framework of risk-based temporary measures for air transport operations during the Covid-19 crisis. It proposes a phased approach to restarting aviation and identifies a set of generally applicable risk-based measures.

These measures include physical distancing to the extent feasible; wearing of face masks by passengers and aviation workers; routine sanitation and disinfection; health screening; contact tracing; passenger health declaration forms; and testing, if and when real-time, rapid and reliable testing becomes available.

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