Lufthansa ready to restart SA commercial flights, keeps lockdown lifeline going

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Currently the Lufthansa group is still only flying 40% of its global capacity.
Currently the Lufthansa group is still only flying 40% of its global capacity.
  • The moment South Africca lifts its international commercial travel ban, Lufthansa will resume flights right away, and according to a gradual restart programme.
  • By May, it has seen a noticeable change in the type of passengers making use of its repatriation flights.
  • More important than telling passengers that they will enjoy the best wine and entertainment on board has become their confidence in health and hygiene measures.

Throughout the lockdown period, it has been the aim of Lufthansa to ensure that some kind of "connection lifeline" remains between South Africa and Germany, according to André Schulz, the Frankfurt-based global airline group's general manager for sales in Southern and East Africa.

"The moment SA lifts its international commercial travel ban, Lufthansa will resume flights right away and according to a gradual restart programme we already have in place," Schulz tells Fin24.

At the beginning of South Africa's lockdown, Lufthansa's repatriation flights were mainly for stranded tourists – including a large group stranded on a German cruise ship in Cape Town harbour, wanting to go home.

At the same time, Lufthansa has also been involved in bringing essential cargo like medical equipment to the country

'Swallows'

By May, it was noticeable that some of the "swallows" (people who enjoy their summers in South Africa to escape the European winter) were heading out to avoid winter here, according to Schulz.  

The type of passengers currently on the repatriation flights also include more South Africans leaving for overseas work or study purposes, as well as more passengers connecting to the rest of the world via the Frankfurt hub. At the same time, people like engineers needed for work at German companies in SA, are accommodated on the repatriation flights.

The typical repatriation passenger profile has also changed slightly. At the start of lockdown, there was a high demand among tourists for economy class, but now the business class section is almost full all the time.

"Currently, repatriation flights are the most essential service that an airline can provide in a country where travel bans remain in place. As South Africa is a key trading partner to Germany, Switzerland and Austria, it is important that the Lufthansa Group remains actively present in the market and maintains strong relations between South Africa and Europe," says Schulz.

The group has recently expanded its repatriation programme to include more flights with Lufthansa between Frankfurt and Johannesburg and Cape Town, as well as bi-weekly flights between Zurich and Johannesburg, by its SWISS airline.

All airlines of the Lufthansa Group require that passengers wear a facial mouth and nose covering while on board. Furthermore, in cooperation with different medical partners, the airline offers its passengers Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, with results delivered within a few hours in a dedicated walk-in testing centre at the airports in Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg.

Return of commercial flights

"There are lots of rumours about when international commercial flights will be allowed to and from SA again. I have no indication, however, when the SA government will withdraw the ban. Of course, we hope it will be soon, but that is not in our hands to decide," says Schulz.

He points out that SA seems to be the only African country which has not yet either already reopened for international flights or announced a date for when international commercial flights will be allowed again.

"Of course, we respect the SA government's coronavirus measures and we all understand governments face trade-offs between wanting to protect people on the one hand, but also wanting to boost economic activity," says Schulz.

International tourists who are currently going on safari cannot, however, choose South Africa as a destination yet and are, therefore, probably opting for Kenya or Namibia, in his view.

"The German market, however, loves SA as a destination and I foresee that, once borders are reopened, these tourists will come, provided health and hygiene measures are guaranteed.

"As for the business travel sector, it is harder to predict, because of the big move to online meetings. At the same time, we know that face-to-face interaction can never be replaced."

He emphasises that it has basically become all about restoring the confidence of travellers.

"More important than telling passengers that they will be served the best wine and enjoy the best entertainment on board, has become their need to have confidence in the health and hygiene measures to provide them with a safe journey," says Schulz.

"It has become about which airline has the strongest value proposition and understands the demands of customers in the new normal."

No quick old normal

Lufthansa chairperson Carsten Spohr said during a recent interim results announcement that the group did not expect global air passenger demand to return to pre-crisis levels before 2024.

Especially for long-haul routes, there will be no quick recovery, in his view. SA is seen as a long-haul destination, for example.

"We are convinced that the entire aviation industry must adapt to a new normal. The pandemic offers our industry a unique opportunity to recalibrate: to question the status quo and, instead of striving for 'growth at any price', to create value in a sustainable and responsible way," said Spohr.

Currently, the group is still only flying at 40% of its global capacity.

Call to African governments

Earlier this week, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) called for the "harmonised" adoption across Africa of the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) Take-Off guidance for safe operations amid the Covid-19 crisis.

"Safely reestablishing the continent's air connectivity is essential to rebuilding battered economies," said Muhammad Albakri, IATA's regional vice president for Africa and the Middle East, in a statement.

IATA also urged African governments to take a step forward in connecting Africa by accelerating the implementation of the Single Africa Air Transport Market (SAATM) to further boost the post-Covid economic recovery.
 
As of 24 August, Rwanda and Kenya were the only African countries in 100% alignment with the ICAO Council's Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) recommendations. Other countries like Ghana and Togo were more than 90%, while The Gambia  wasat about 81%.

South Africa is one of 34 countries that signed a statement of intent to join the SAATM, but it has not moved beyond that. It still needs to sign the Memorandum of Implementation. That would also compel it to pass enabling legislation and regulations, which include removing restrictions in any of its existing bilateral air service agreements with other African countries. 

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