South African Airways (SA, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) is to re-enter the intercontinental market in the first quarter of 2023 and has announced its re-entry on some of its traditional regional markets and new routes that remain underserved.

The state-owned airline - which exited business rescue on April 30, 2021, resumed commercial flights in September that year, and is to be partially privatised - has announced it will relaunch flights from Johannesburg O.R. Tambo to Blantyre and Lilongwe in Malawi, Windhoek International in Namibia, and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe before the start of the 2022 festive season.

This comes as South Africa's International Air Services Licensing Council (IASLC) ratified that SAA may retain all its historical route traffic rights after "voluntarily relinquishing" 20 frequencies on destinations it is not currently serving, the airline said in a statement. SAA Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Lamola said SAA met with the IASLC every quarter to review and justify its route network plan and existing traffic rights. Routes and frequency licenses that were not part of SAA's medium-term plans would progressively be released to the IASLC.

According to South Africa's International Air Services Act, an international license is conditional on an air service not being interrupted for three months or longer, as determined by the IASLC. Airlines must commence or continue with an air service within 12 months from when the license was issued or amended. While in business rescue, SAA managed to hang onto its international route rights partly because the IASLC was defunct for 12 months as Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula delayed its re-appointment - a move criticised as protectionism and which held up regional expansion plans of SAA's privately-owned competitors.

Meanwhile, Lamola said the network changes represented the second phase of SAA's restart operations, which would also see increased domestic frequencies from Johannesburg to Cape Town International and Durban King Shaka, and regionally to Accra in Ghana, Harare International in Zimbabwe, Lusaka in Zambia, Mauritius, and Kinshasa N'Djili in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Lamola last month told ch-aviation that SAA would double its leased fleet to 12 aircraft by April 2023 as part of a fleet and intercontinental route expansion plan to be implemented from November 2022 – irrespective of a delay or even indefinite postponement of its current strategic equity partnership (SEP) deal with the Takatso Consortium. After more than a year of negotiations, the transaction is now being examined by the country's competition regulators.

By April, the fleet would consist of ten A320-200s, one A330-300, Lamola said, with another wide-body still to be determined depending on which intercontinental routes the airline decides to re-enter first. Routes being considered include London Heathrow, UK; Perth International, Australia; and São Paulo Guarulhos, Brazil.