TBCSA CEO, Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa

Mayhem broke out in air travel to South Africa this weekend due to inconsistent interpretation of the government’s new travel regulations. When accounts surfaced of international travellers being denied boarding, and media reports broke on the cancellation of Emirates’ Durban flights, (which indicated that other airlines would soon follow suit), passengers started to panic. Luckily government responded to the urgent escalations made by industry bodies over the weekend, and issued a number of statements which defused the situation.

Ceo of TBCSA, Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, explained to Travel News that there had been two major issues concerning the operationalisation of the new travel regulations introduced on October 1.

Crew Testing

Firstly there was inconsistency of interpretation of the regulations which require international travellers to present a negative PCR test to enter South Africa. This was interpreted by certain officials to also apply to airline cabin crew. Tshifhiwa said that it was completely impractical to expect crew to comply with the same requirements as travellers and added that if this requirement was enforced airlines would have cancelled their flights to South Africa en masse. He explained that stringent international protocols to keep cabin crew safe were already in place including regular testing, isolation in flight bubbles, etc.

Travel News understands that this issue affected only Emirates flights to Durban. Though the airline’s spokeperson was unable to provide comment on the matter, Travel News has had sight of an Emirates trade statement issued on Saturday advising agents of the cancellation of Flights EK775 between Dubai and Durban until further notice. The statement advised agents to re-book disrupted passengers on EK764 out of Johannesburg.

Chairperson of the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (Barsa), Carla da Silva, confirmed that only Emirates had been affected by this problem. “No other airlines cancelled their flights, as we escalated the matter and it was attended to by government, who reacted and amended the PCR requirement,” she said.

An extract from an amended Covid-19 NOTAM from the SA Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) stated the following:

“For international and domestic flights, passengers and crew must comply with specific requirements of directions with regards to PCR test, quarantine requirements and wearing of masks. Regulations currently being reviewed and will be communicated in due course are:

  1. Crew with valid negative PCR test will be allowed access to South Africa.
  2. Crew without negative PCR test shall be quarantined at their contracted hotel until they leave South Africa.

Confusion over SA visas 

According to Tshifhiwa the second issue related to a number of people being turned away from international flights to South Africa due to confusion over visa requirements. He explained that earlier this year, prior to the implementation of the complete travel ban, government had introduced visas to limit the number of people entering the country from high risk countries. With the lifting of the international travel ban on October 1 certain officials were still insisting that passport holders from traditionally visa-free destinations (such as Germany) were still prohibited from entering South Africa without a visa. This was also inconsistently applied at different entry points, said Tshifhiwa.

Following urgent escalation by industry bodies the Minister of Home Affairs issued a statement on Sunday saying a decision had been made to reinstate the visa-exempt status which had been revoked at the beginning of lockdown, of the citizens of the affected countries . This reinstatement of visa-free status was extended to passport holders from South Korea, Spain, Italy, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, USA, UK, France, Portugal and Iran.

“The visa-free status of citizens of these counties was temporarily suspended at the start of lockdown. This means that airlines may board passport holders of these countries without a visa in line with their exemption status before lockdown,” advised the DHA.

It added that transit travellers through South Africa by air would also be allowed to connect to their destinations, subject to them complying with applicable SA health protocols. It also said that airline crew would be allowed entry subject to adherence to the industry health guidelines and international protocols.

“This situation has created a PR nightmare for South Africa. We simply do not have the luxury of being able to afford government overlooking the practical application of its travel regulations and not doing things right the first time. We, as an industry, are available to be consulted and we encourage government to engage with us ahead of the implementation of regulations,” said Tshifhiwa.