With South Africa’s international borders still closed indefinitely, the only approved flights in and out of the country are special repatriation flights. However, some airlines have commercial flights in their inventory for the next few months, displayed on their websites, inviting customers to book.

Owain John, owner of Take Off Travel, posted a screenshot on OpenJaw of a commercial flight for sale, scheduled to depart on August 3. He said: “Less than 72 hours before departure, and these flights still come up as an available option for purchase with Qatar and on Amadeus, although we know this will be cancelled. This is so unfair to the desperate pax trying to get home, applying for their government approvals and visas, putting pressure on their embassy to respond with approved laissez-passer letters, going for COVID tests to show that they are negative by time of arrival in their destination, booking their domestic tickets up to Johannesburg from regional airports on low-cost carriers who have strict non-refundable policies in place… All of this for flights that will eventually be cancelled, as they are commercial options.

“In addition to the heartbreak Qatar is doing to so many desperate people – we will get you home, they say – this is causing us as agents to look like idiots when we advise that these flights will not be flying and that we don’t know what we’re talking about, as even the Qatar call centre themselves say these flights are flying. Or am I wrong and Qatar has locked in commercial flights somehow?!”

Turkish Airlines and Kenya Airways have flights on sale from September, and Virgin Airways has flights on sale from October.

A spokesperson for Qatar Airways told Travel News: “Qatar Airways, like all other international airlines, has been publishing tickets for sale in line with the latest information at the time available from the government of South Africa regarding operation of commercial flights. During this period the end date for the restriction on commercial flights has moved several times due to the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Whenever restrictions are extended and we are forced to cancel flights, we contact all impacted passengers to provide alternative options including refunds.”

The spokesperson further explained that the South African government issues NOTAMs (notice to airmen) to airlines operating in South Africa, which specify what the restrictions are on flights. Since the onset of the pandemic, all aviation authorities do this. The NOTAM will be issued stating that during a certain period, airlines cannot operate commercial flights, so airlines then load flights post that period.

“It has been rolling each month,” the spokesperson explained, “so the previous one was July 1 to July 31. That is why we had flights available from August 3. On July 31, the government extended that NOTAM for another month, until August 31. So we can only operate on what the latest information is. So you can see now in the first week of September, we and other airlines have flights for sale because that’s the latest information we have. Many governments don’t give their updates until closer to the day before, or the day the current restriction ends.” The spokesperson confirmed that customers who book these flights on Qatar are entitled to a full refund.

Darrin Thomas, Virgin Airways’ manager of marketing and communications South Africa, told Travel News: “We are monitoring external conditions extremely closely, in particular the travel restrictions many countries have in place, including the 14-day quarantine policy for travellers entering the UK.”

Darrin said that customers who were booked on flights that were cancelled due to closed borders were entitled to a refund, or have the option of rebooking.

Travel News contacted Turkish Airlines and Kenya Airways for comment but had not heard back at the time of publication.