Level 3 gives airlines a lifeline - but it's a short one

(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Limited domestic air travel will be allowed under Level 3 of lockdown, phased in for business purposes, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said on Saturday.

While this could be good news for businesses that have to date been hamstrung by travel restrictions, it also raises questions of feasibility for airlines themselves, which are already facing crippling losses in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking during a briefing on updated transport regulations, Mbalula said the number of flights allowed each day will be restricted and based on the reason for travel, as well as the availability of port health services.

Golden triangle

In Phase 1, only so-called "golden triangle" airports will be phasing in business travel. OR Tambo International Airport and Lanseria Airport will be open in Gauteng, as well as King Shaka International Airport in KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town international Airport in the Western Cape.

In Phase 2, Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, Polokwane International Airport, and Bram Fischer International Airport will open; while Phase 3 will see Kimberly, Upington, Umtata, East London and Port Elizabeth's airports opening.  

Phase 1 will function as a critical "stress test" to see whether it is feasible to continue to Phases 2 and 3, the minister emphasised. The move to Phase 2 will also be informed by current low infection rates in the country's inland provinces, Mbalula said.

Stress test, staggered boarding

Other safety measures include only allowing passengers inside airport terminals, and the screening and temperature testing of passengers. Additionally, there will be "staggered" boarding to allow for physical distancing, and airport buses can only be 70% full.

All airport personnel will be wearing masks, the minister added.

Additionally, food and magazines will be forbidden on flights and anyone who is considered to be high risk will be seated at the back of the plane. All aircraft will be disinfected after each flight.

But, he said, aircraft will be allowed to operate at full capacity, citing air filters on board that kill bacteria, lowering the risk of infection.

'Layered approach'

Despite the proximity of airline seats, operating at capacity is in line with global industry recommendations.

On Saturday, the International Air Transport Association said it advised more frequent, deeper cleaning of aircraft; mandatory facemasks for passengers and crew; simplified catering; and limited movement on board. But it added that it did not recommend restricting use of the "middle seat", instead advocating a "layered approach to biosafety".

This, according to industry, is based on research conducted within the sector, which has found that once on board an aircraft, the level of proximity makes less difference than the level of sanitisation.

According to Mbalula, the transport ministry is confident that based on consultations with various industry bodies, most of the sector is ready to resume operations with the necessary health protocols in place.

Local airlines have previously raised concerns over the feasibility of resuming operations without the demand to match. Internationally, the airline industry is anticipating a staggering $550 billion in losses by the end of the year. Locally, it is not much better off, with South African airlines set to lose some R55 billion revenue and over 250 000 jobs on the line.

It is further estimated that the fall in revenue puts around R93 billion South Africa's gross domestic product (GDP) at risk - the part generated by aviation directly, plus air transport-dependent tourism.

Kirby Gordon, head of sales and distribution at low-cost airline Flysafair, told Fin24 after the briefing that while finances were going to be "quite tight", the airline did welcome the move. 

"We are quite excited about it. We do see some potential," he said. However, he warned that demand would likely continue to be very low, and it was likely that despite regulations allowing for full flights, airlines would be facing empty seats for some time, which could add to losses. 

"Making a loss is not an avoidable situation right now," he said. But for airlines which have been hard hit by travel bans, it would help to have some aircraft covering the cost of their leases if demand takes off, he added. 

"We do see some opportunity," he said. "We are running a few models."

In line with IATA's recommendations, FlySafair will be allowing all seats to be booked. But for a fee, customers may book out the middle seat if they wish to maintain extra distance. 

Comair, which operates Kulula.com and British Airways locally - is in business rescue, and therefore does not foresee operating flights before November.

Low-cost airline Mango said after the briefing that it would issue a response in due course. At the time of publication, it had not yet done so. However, it previously indicated it was keen to resume flying.

Its parent company, SAA, said had received approval to continue operating international repatriation flights due to continued demand. It had opened a government-approved online portal to monitor customer interest, it added. 

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