As South Africa’s economy slowly comes back online and lockdown restrictions are relaxed, domestic air travel is set to resume in the coming months.
While there is no confirmed date for the reopening of air travel, South Africans should not expect to board a flight immediately after restrictions are lifted.
MyBroadband spoke to a number of travel agencies – including Flight Centre and The Boyz – as well as airline associations about the potential reopening of air travel.
They all said the length of time before flights would return to operation would vary according to the airline and the requirements outlined by the regulations.
Additionally, South African Airways is on the brink of liquidation and Comair has entered voluntary business rescue – with the airline telling MyBroadband it expects to return to service around November 2020.
“Comair’s fleet is maintained in preparation for resuming operations when circumstances permit,” the airline said. “Precise timings would depend on a number of factors, including Government restrictions to contain COVID-19.”
MyBroadband spoke to the Airlines Association of South Africa (AASA), the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA), and the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) about the industry’s readiness for reopening and whether this would occur under level 3 lockdown.
Airlines Association of South Africa CEO Chris Zweigenthal told MyBroadband that preparations to restart operations would be initiated following the announcement that air travel is allowed.
“This may or may not be tied to the implementation date of level 3,” Zweigenthal said. “This is up to the government to determine.”
“The actual date of resumption of services would also be determined per airline. With a complete prohibition of scheduled airline operations, most airline staff and operational personnel are not at work and the aircraft are parked.”
Zweigenthal said a lead time would be required before planes could take off, although all participants in the industry are eager to resume operations.
“It is expected that there will be a slow start-up and therefore the lead time could vary between airlines,” he said.
“An estimate is that it could be anything from two weeks to one month. This would need to be confirmed with the airlines themselves.”
Zweigenthal added that the determination of a date by the government to resume operations is critical.
“It is also important to understand what restrictions, if any, are put in place,” he said.
“Restrictions could constrain the number of passengers able to fly and this could impact the viability of airline operations, and we are recommending no restrictions.”
“We are currently working on finalising protocols to be put in place to mitigate and reduce COVID-19 transmission risks associated with travel and are confident that the authorities and passengers will be satisfied with the measures to be implemented and have the confidence to fly.”
Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA) CEO Otto De Vries said that travel consultants have been working hard to ensure travellers were safe during global lockdowns.
“When the travel bans were announced across the world, travel consultants worked tirelessly to interpret sometimes hourly-changing booking and cancellation policies,” De Vries said.
“They waded through reams of information, some of it inaccurate, to provide the best possible proactive solutions for their travelling customers. They kept their finger on the pulse and kept their cool as global travel bans evolved rapidly.”
“In a post-COVID world, travel consultants will be the experts that can help travellers make sense of the rapidly-changing regulations around the world, and new health and safety protocols,” De Vries added.
He said ASATA is making every effort to lobby the government to allow travel to start up in parallel with aviation and other suppliers in the value chain, to ensure a smooth restart.
“ASATA travel consultants are working in close collaboration with the airline industry,” De Vries said.
“They will be able to book travel for their clients as soon as the airlines are ready.”
Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) group executive for corporate affairs Refentse Shinners said that airports would take time to return to operations.
“As with other sectors that have resumed partial or full operations, we would need time for frontline employees who haven’t been working to return to our airport sites, ensure that they are all equipped with proper PPE, and train them on any new rules and procedures specified by the Department of Transport and our internal standard operating procedures,” Shinners said.
“We need our employees first to be safe and to feel safe, so we would urge caution in assuming that airport operations would necessarily resume immediately should a change to the lockdown level be announced.”
Shinners said ACSA has used the lockdown period to sanitise all terminals, and some of its spaces have already been configured to enable physical distancing.
“These include security screening areas, check-in counters, passenger boarding gates, and so on.” Shinners said.
“Further, much would also depend on our airline partners in terms of their own preparations for resuming flying.”
“We have as an industry started collaboration on the new standard operating principles (SOPs) that will be implemented when operations resume,” Shinners said.
Shinners said that one of the most significant challenges would be to ensure that travellers accept and adhere to new necessary procedures.
“Applying these procedures will require understanding and cooperation from the flying public.”
“For passengers, the airport experience will not be the same as before,” Shinners said.
“Airports are public spaces. We must emphasise that we are putting these measures in place to ensure not only passenger health and safety, but also that of thousands of people who work in the airport environment.”