While there is still uncertainty about government regulations relating to the reopening of South Africa’s borders, airlines have welcomed the decision and are forging ahead with the resumption of international commercial flights to and from South Africa.
“Bearing in mind that a couple of months ago we were being told that South Africa’s borders would remain closed until 2021, this is indeed a victory for the industry despite the restrictions that were announced last night. We have moved in the right direction and the objective now is to continue to work with government to open up the borders in totality and to ensure that entry requirements are manageable and effective rather than rigorous and difficult” said Barsa chair Carla da Silva.
On the subject of whether the introduction of the government’s high risk country list, which it intends to review on a fortnightly basis, would discourage airlines from returning to South Africa due to uncertainty, Carla responded that the implementation of the list was clearly intended to monitor infection rates and save lives.
“Airlines are permitted to fly to South Africa not only to facilitate business travel but also for the transportation of long term visa holders and returning residents, etc. It is only leisure travel that is being restricted. Most countries are opening up in a phased approach and there are no best practices worldwide that one can review. It is about opening the borders in a responsible, cautious manner and assessing what works and does not work. This is unfamiliar territory for everyone including government,” said Carla.
Liezl Gericke, head of Middle East, Africa and India for Virgin Atlantic said that while the announced regulations were disappointing due to their restrictiveness, airlines were also very grateful that they were being permitted to fly again.
“We must remember that domestic travel reopened with restrictions a few months ago and is now fully open. We need to be patient, to test drive things in October and November, and to work with government to slowly reopen international travel fully. The announcement was not unexpected, as we all knew that a country categorisation would be introduced with more restrictions implemented for countries with higher infection rates,” said Liezl.
Despite the UK featuring on South Africa’s list of high risk countries, Virgin Atlantic is unwavering in its decision to resume services to South Africa.
“Our first flight is still scheduled to fly from London to Johannesburg on October 18 and we will start off with a schedule of four flights per week. We understand the government’s decision to restrict leisure travel from the UK at present, as the country is currently seeing a huge spike in infections, but we are still hopeful that leisure travel will be reinstated by December in time for the peak inbound season. Leisure and VFR travel is an extremely important market right now, which we believe will be ready to bounce back earlier than corporate travel, which has to consider huge responsibilities to employees regarding duty of care,” said Liezl.
Carla added that she believed that the corporate-leisure mix on a particular route would be a significant deciding factor for airlines that were considering reinstating South African flights.
Both Liezl and Carla mentioned that there was still a lot of uncertainty relating to requirements for passengers transiting via high risk airline hubs.
“We are seeking further clarification on the requirements and are also recommending to government, via the respective engagement meetings we have, to revive our industry and ultimately open our borders in totality. We take inputs and recommendations from our BARSA members and exco to ensure that we drive a consolidated approach taking everybody’s needs and requirements into account,” said Carla.
She also reconfirmed that as business travel was permitted from high risk countries, subject to protocol adherence, it made sense that business travellers would be permitted to fly into South Africa via high risk country hubs. She added that she would imagine that travellers would also initially look for the most direct routes for their travel plans, as travellers were still nervous and wanted to avoid long flying times and transits through airports.
Liezl said that while connecting networks were important, Virgin’s South Africa-London routes were traditionally dominated by point to point traffic and transiting traffic from the US. As the US was also classified a high risk country at present, Virgin would be less affected than many other carriers by transiting restrictions.
International airlines first out of the starting gate in the reinstatement of their South African commercial flights include
- Lufthansa which was the very first international airline to resume commercial services to South Africa touching down at ORTIA at 08h30 on October 1;
- Emirates whose first schedule flight landed in Cape Town on October 1
- KLM whose Johannesburg and Cape Town to Amsterdam flights also operated on October 1