What is the state of South Africa’s airline industry?

The local aviation industry has been in the news recently for a number of reasons. South African Airways (SAA) is facing financial problems, while Skywise flights have been grounded by Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) for outstanding fees. There have also been concerns over the safety of flights when FlySafair experienced a problem in January this year.

Moneybags journalist Jessica Anne Wood examines the state of the South African airline industry.

Russell Jarvis, head of communications at Travelstart, says: “The local airline industry experienced rapid growth in bookings and suppliers within the last two years (Q4 2014 to present) with no less than five new carriers taking to the sky most notably FlySafair (October 2014) and Skywise (February 2015), and FlyGoAir, CemAir and Fly Blue Crane commencing scheduled services.”


The popularity of travel

According to Jarvis, the route between Cape Town and Johannesburg is one of the busiest in the world. In 2014, ACSA recorded 4,234,249 passengers flying between OR Tambo and Cape Town airports. Due to the high number of passengers flying this route, there has been an increase in competition.

“After FlySafair took off Travelstart found that they had reduced fares on some routes by as much as 39%. However, in a study conducted later in the year it emerged that low fares could be stifling the growth of the South African commercial aviation industry, and in December 2015 this held true as Skywise was grounded for defaulting on payments to ACSA and ATNS (Air Traffic and Navigation Services),” explains Jarvis.


Who should you trust?

The question of which airline you can trust is probably at the fore of many travellers’ minds. With FlySafair having experienced a technical problem during flight in January, people may be sceptical about taking one of their flights. However, rigorous safety checks are carried out before every flight.

According to Jarvis, despite the unfortunate FlySafair incidents reported on recently, the company has a 50 year solid safety track record. “All airlines who operate within SA skies are required to meet rigorous safety standards as set out by the CAA (South African Civil Aviation Authority). SAA has one of the best technical teams in the world,” he adds.

Jarvis notes: “The short answer [to which airline should you choose] would be any airline which is most likely to stay operating on time and safely. For air travel consumers it’s a tough one – do they support the underdog (such as Skywise) and get access to cheaper fares and a more personable flying experience at the same time taking the risk of never taking off, or do they stick with who/what they know and probably pay more for the same flight and receive a level of service which could probably do with a refresh.”

Jarvis suggests that frequent travellers try new airlines. “Air travel in South Africa will become more of a commodity and the airlines need to become more flexible in what they’re offering their customers. For example, the entry of FlySafair into the local market brought with it a trend from Europe whereby the airline charges extra for checked luggage – this effectively offers consumers more choice – especially business travellers who would appreciate the option of not having to pay for a checked bag if they don’t intend bringing one on their trip.”


Which airlines will survive?

With smaller, independent airlines entering the market, and with many of these types of airlines having failed in the past, such as 1time Airline, Nationwide Airlines and Velvet Sky, the question of which airlines will survive is paramount.

SAA has also been facing a number of financial difficulties, with many questioning the future of the national carrier. Skywise is also facing challenges with its flights being grounded and many travellers inconvenienced over the festive season. Travellers will want to ensure that a flight they book will take off and land.

Jarvis notes that the question of which carriers will survive is more a question of how well privately-funded airlines deal with the barriers they face to entering the local airline industry.

“Running a profitable airline in the current climate involves constant learning and adaptation. Monitoring and fulfilling load factor is important at a grassroots level for airlines, as is the creation of ancillary revenue streams from a business and diversification perspective. Skywise, for example, would probably have been in a better position than what they are currently if they had focused on broadening their route network beyond Johannesburg and Cape Town only.”


Airlines’ reputations

The reputations of airlines are being affected by the bad service customers receive or the bad press that they get in the media. .

Referring to Skywise, Jarvis says: “Their reputation has taken a hammering in the wake of their flights being grounded in December 2015 and continuing now. People lost money, their holiday plans were let down over one of the busiest travel periods of the year, and the airline is yet to offer a clear path forward to offer some compensation to displaced passengers. All of this does a lot of damage to the reputation of an airline, especially something like air travel which resides at such a high price point. They will have a lot of work to do to restore their public image if they are able to commence operations again.”


How to get cheaper flights

With more competition in the market people now have the ability to shop around for the best flight prices. Booking in advance also helps in securing a better price. However, with the possibility of the airline not being able to offer the flight (like Skywise in December), some people may be hesitant to book in advance for fear that they lose their money and don’t get a flight.

Below are some tips to help you find the best airfare deals:

  • Book your flight early. The closer you book to the departure date, the more expensive the flight becomes. Kirby Gordon, FlySafair vice president for sales and distribution, revealed to Justmoney: “The first seats on a flight always go for the best price and as the aircraft fills up, the seats become incrementally more expensive. You want to be the first to book on a flight. I would recommend that people try to book as far out as six weeks before a flight and maybe more for the very busy holiday periods and long weekends.”
  • Shop around for the best deal. With so many airlines offering flights not only domestically but internationally as well, shop around before purchasing your ticket. An airline may claim to offer the best and most competitive price, but you might be surprised by what you find if you shop around. Some airlines also regularly offer deals and specials on flights, so try booking when these are running.
  • Don’t over pack. If you exceed the airline’s maximum luggage weight limit you will be charged. Weigh your bag before you leave home to make sure that it does not exceed the limit. If you know you are going to bring back souvenirs, try and leave a few extra kilograms for the added weight that you will bring back.