40 Hours and almost R80k later - the rip-off of flight prices to get home before lockdown

Before the lockdown in the country was even announced, South African married couple Jana and Martin were making arrangements to cut their three-month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia short.

On 18 March they had moved and changed their return flight booked with Etihad from Phuket to Jakarta and for 26 March, flying via Abu Dhabi to Johannesburg. Outside of the high-risk countries, there was no ban on these routes to South Africa. This cost around R8 000 per person.

With all the expected delays with health screenings, they figured they would wait to purchase their domestic flight home to Cape Town once they arrived at OR Tambo International. - 

On 21 March, they decided to move up their flight from Bali to Jakarta with Air Asia two days earlier, as their original flight got cancelled. These tickets at least were still at normal prices, around R800 per person. As Jakarta has seen a high rise in coronavirus numbers, they planned to keep themselves isolated in an airport hotel room until their international trip. Luckily, Air Asia didn't charge them for the change and notified them in advance with easy assistance from an artificial intelligence bot.

The next day, Emirates started the back-and-forth of cancelling of flights - but Jana and Martin were flying with Etihad so they felt confident it would still be fine - but with one free date change they tried to find out if they could move it even earlier. Waiting in Bali, they enjoyed some beach time - almost empty with no tourists in sight - and tried to enjoy the last few hours of their holiday.

The same day, the United Arab Emirates government announced that it was halting all passengers flights in and out of its borders - including transit flights - from 25 March. This included flights through Abu Dhabi.

Upon hearing the news, their supportive travel agent changed their flight to 24 March. At the same time back home, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa would go into a 21-day lockdown from Thursday, 26 March at 00:00.

On the day of their journey back home, before they even got on their flight from Bali to Jakarta, Etihad cancelled their flight after they had already checked-in. Forking out even more money - a total of almost R53 000 - they quickly bought the last economy seats on a Qatar Airways flight for the same day, this time via Doha to Johannesburg.

If they wanted a flight to Cape Town, they would have had to fork out R123 000 a ticket - only Business Class seats were left. 

At the Jakarta airport, it was pretty empty - except for the long line of tourists from around the world trying desperately to get back home. It looked like Qatar was one of the only ones still flying - and they were coining it. 

empty arrivals area in airport

Almost empty arrivals in Jakarta's international airport. (Photo: Supplied)

They tried to find out what's happening at Etihad - the airline wasn't going to reimburse them. All they got was a measly flight credit that had to be used before September of this year.

Many passengers had similar issues with them.

Some travellers didn't have the money to pay for these flights to get home.

"We were fortunate and privileged enough to be able to afford these really high prices - were very aware at the airports that many were unable to do so, and were stranded either in transit or the destination they were trying to fly from," says Jana.

"It really angered us to see how these large airline companies didn't practice any sense of corporate social responsibility in these times of need, vulnerability and panic - people just really needed to get back home."

She adds that she, like many other passengers, hopes airlines reconsider their policies during such times and enact faster procedures for refunds during crises. 

flights board with cancellations

(Photo: Cancelled flights in Jakarta's international airport. Photo: Supplied)

Doha's airport was busy - with UAE's flight bans, this was one of the few routes available to travellers to get home. They tried to see if they could change their ticket to Cape Town, but it would have been another R16 000 per person. 

Domestic price gouging

During their wait at the airport, they started checking domestic flights from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Many local airlines by then had announced that they were also shutting down for the lockdown period.

With many flights already sold out, they had to buy what they could get. They managed a booking for Mango - over R6 700 for two one-way tickets, which in regular times would have been between R1 000 and R1 600 for both of them. 

"After all the stress and added costs of arriving in Joburg, we were quite disappointed in South Africa's domestic airlines' ability to deal with the crisis as well, specifically Mango. On their website, the only flights from Johannesburg to Cape Town was the Economy Plus option, at a much higher cost, saying that all other economy tickets were sold out."

"We were seated in the first row as part of our 'plus' benefits - lounge access, priority boarding, and a R70 meal voucher - but when we arrived at the gate they told us the flight was so empty they had to rebalance the plane and put us all the way in the back and there was no food or drink service or priority boarding.

"It was evident to us that Mango boosted their tickets last-minute to create the impression that there were limited spaces while there were only 20 people on the airplane."

With a fast health screening process at OR Tambo International, they made it back to Cape Town, and started their self-quarantine process at home as the rest of the country headed into lockdown - about 40 hours and almost R80 000 later.

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