SA’s hold on skies, high fees stifle commercial aviation

South Africa's reluctance to liberalise the skies does more harm than good. Photographer: Armand Hough/Independent Newspapers

South Africa's reluctance to liberalise the skies does more harm than good. Photographer: Armand Hough/Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 18, 2024


Aviation industry players have warned that the trans-Atlantic routes that the South African government is allegedly holding for South African Airways (SAA) from interested bilateral partners have resulted in the sector's slow growth.

Industry sources yesterday said the gap left by SAA since it went into business rescue in 2019, and the subsequent under recovery post-COVID, were a direct reflection on the national carrier's capacity to sufficiently service international routes.

SAA is flying to all routes, including in London, Frankfurt, Munich, Zurich, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Mauritius and Washington DC amongst others, except for Perth and a few others.

These routes are underserved, and the government is allegedly reluctant to amend bilateral agreements it has with these countries which want to increase frequencies.

An aviation insider yesterday said the government was asked to amend the bilateral agreements at the last International Commission for Air Navigation (ICAN) meeting in Saudi Arabia in December last year, and they said no because they are holding the routes for SAA.

The ICAN provides states with a central meeting place to conduct bilateral, regional or multilateral air services negotiations and consultations, as well as networking opportunities for policymakers, regulators, air operators, service providers and other stakeholders.

“In all the bilateral agreements, South Africa is not prepared to grant temporary access to other airlines while it sorts out the issue at SAA," he said, explaining that the country had the same number of slots with the bilateral partners which it now could not fulfil,” said the insider.

“South Africa is sitting on the runway, United Airlines and Delta have asked to increase frequencies because South Africa is a busy destination but the department is protecting the traffic rights for SAA who are not bringing in the traffic into the country.”

The Department of Transport; however, had not responded after three days of being sent enquiries on its position regarding open sky arrangements, or the review of the bilateral agreements.

Other aviation sources said South Africa's reluctance to liberalise the skies did more harm than good as international business travellers who also incorporated tourism activities in their schedules approaches by several countries including some in the European Union (EU) bloc.

Commercial Aviation Association of Southern Africa CEO, Kev Storie, confirmed that commercial airlines faced an uphill battle with rising operational and regulatory costs.

"SAA is the least of the worries for commercial operators,“ Storie said.

“Look at the way air prices have increased in the past year because there is not enough demand, and so people have to pay more to make it viable for the operators.

“To be blunt many operators are seriously considering moving to member states like Namibia and Botswana which are a lot friendlier to operators and they want us to come work there.”