The South African government is sticking to its guns in denying Delta Air Lines (DL, Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson) co-terminalisation rights in South Africa despite protests by the US Department of Transportation (US DOT) and regulatory retaliation against South African Airways (SA, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo).

In what has escalated into a diplomatic row, the US DOT has denied an application for SAA, due to restart in August, to operate to other points beyond its primary US gateways. The snub follows after its South African counterpart refused Delta the right to operate from Johannesburg O.R. Tambo to Cape Town on its return leg to Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson on 3x weekly A350-900 flights resuming on August 1, 2021.

However in its first official comment on the matter emailed to ch-aviation, the SA DoT said: “The Department of Transport (DoT) is of the view that the current Air Transport Agreement between the Government of the Republic of South Africa and the Government of the United States of America concluded in 1996 does not allow for co-terminalisation. Delta's renewal application was approved for the Atlanta – (OR Tambo) Johannesburg - Atlanta/ Atlanta - Cape Town - Atlanta. The approval allows Delta to operate direct services from Atlanta into Cape Town, should the airline consider this option.”

This contradicts the position held by the US DOT which maintains that the current bilateral air service agreement between the countries allows for co-terminalisation rights of designated carriers from both countries. It has accused the SA DoT of deliberately re-interpreting the agreement incorrectly to prevent Delta from exercising its bilateral rights, noting that SAA previously had co-terminal rights to the US under the bilateral, both for its own services and for code-shares.

The US DOT declined to comment on Pretoria's statement as the matter is pending.

Delta first applied for the tag-on flight to Cape Town in May 2020. This was followed by months of repeated requests, which eventually escalated to a diplomatic level with Washington having raised its concerns with multiple agencies of the South African government, without success.

Delta would not have transported local Johannesburg-Cape Town traffic on the route.

Asked for comment, a Delta spokesperson said: “We are grateful to the US government for its support in assisting us to restart our operations to South Africa. While Delta did not receive final approval from the South African government to operate intra-South Africa service between Johannesburg and Cape Town, Delta has interline agreements in place with local airlines offering onward connections to Cape Town, via Johannesburg. Delta has a long history of serving South Africa via our nonstop flight between Atlanta and Johannesburg, which we have operated for more than 15 years.”

Delta has long-standing interline agreements with Comair (South Africa) and Airlink (South Africa) on the Johannesburg-Cape Town stretch.