Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula has published new regulations related to alert level 3 of the national lockdown which allow domestic flights for business travel.
According to the regulations, domestic passenger air travel is not permitted for recreational, leisure, or tourism purposes.
There are also strict rules which must be adhered to by both passengers, airports, and airlines.
No catering will be allowed during flights, no onboard magazines will be provided, and the last row of the aircraft will be reserved for isolation of suspected cases.
All the airports will have markings on the floor for social distancing of 1.5 metres. This will be applicable at check-in counters, security checkpoints, and airport lounges.
All airline check-in agents will wear face shields and people will be encouraged to use self-check-in to avoid queues.
At boarding gates, boarding will be staggered and prioritized in terms of the number of passengers to board.
To further encourage social distancing, only passengers are allowed inside airport terminal buildings – which means no family and friends can accompany travellers inside airports.
In a surprise move Mbalula announced that aircraft will be permitted to operate at full capacity, despite previous discussions about creating more space between passengers.
He said it was not necessary to create additional space between passengers because of the High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters used in aircraft.
According to Mbalula, these filters are highly effective at removing a virus from the air, which safeguards passengers against the coronavirus.
There are restrictions, however, on the number of daily flights – and the airline industry will be opened in three phases.
- Phase 1 will allow flights from OR Tambo, Cape Town, King Shaka, and Lanseria international airports.
- Phase 2 will allow flights from Kruger Mpumalanga, Polokwane, and Bram Fischer international airports.
- Phase 3 will allow flights from Kimberley Airport, Upington Airport, East London Airport, Umtata Airport, and Port Elizabeth Airport.
Mbalula said the initial period will serve as a trial to test the systems and measures to determine if they are holding up.
“We will further engage with the industry stakeholders on the contributions that are necessary for port health capacity in the operations of phases 2 and 3 of the rollout,” he said.
The big problem – few flights available
While opening domestic air travel was welcomed, it does not mean that you can get a flight – as there are currently very few flights and seats available.
This is partly a result of two of the most popular domestic airlines – Kulula and FlySafair – not planning to operate yet.
Kulula owner Comair has entered into voluntary business rescue and only expects to resume flights around 1 November 2020.
FlySafair, which is in a much better financial position because of its substantial cash reserves, remains unsure as to when it will take to the skies again.
FlySafair CEO Elmar Conradie said it can be more costly for them to start operating again under restrained conditions than keeping their planes grounded.
He said the current restrictions on who can fly dampen the demand to travel, which means they may have to fly with empty planes.
Without enough capacity it is not possible to cover the cost of a flight, which means FlySafair will lose money on flights.
Conradie said they need to fill a plane to at least 85% to start to make money, which is unlikely with the current restrictions.
“Without some kind of support from the government, we don’t know how it can be feasible to just fly for business people,” he said.
His views are echoed by SA Flyer Magazine editor Guy Leitch, who said airlines are unlikely to start operating in this restrained environment.
Even with fewer flights per day, aircraft will not reach the capacity levels needed to operate profitably.
Leitch added that companies have also changed the way they operate by adopting video conferencing and webinars over face-to-face meetings.
There is also uncertainty on whether South African Airways (SAA) will open up domestic flights again soon.
On 26 May the airline said it plans to restart domestic flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town with effect from mid-June 2020.
A day later, however, SAA’s business rescue practitioners said the airline’s announcement that it plans to resume domestic flights was “unvetted”.
There is a lot of uncertainty for local airlines around domestic air travel, and it shows in the online flight booking platforms.
The screenshots below show what local travellers are greeted with when trying to book a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.