South African airlines have welcomed the long-awaited re-constitution of the country's two air service licensing councils after a year-long hiatus during which no new license or route applications could be processed.

The Cabinet, in a statement on March 10, announced the appointment of five members each to the International Air Services Council and its domestic counterpart Air Services Licensing Council.

"We greatly welcome the news. We have many outstanding applications and look forward to further expansion into Africa," commented Comair (South Africa) Chief Executive Officer Glenn Orsmond.

"We are very pleased that the councils have been appointed. It's good for South Africa because it means that we can now take full advantage of deploying airlines upon the various routes available to us by virtue of our bilateral agreements, which is ultimately good for the South African economy. We are excited to see that the councils are back in play," agreed FlySafair Executive Manager and Chief Marketing Officer Kirby Gordon.

South African airlines were forced to put their regional expansion plans on hold for an entire year at a time of overcapacity on domestic routes amid strained travel recovery following COVID-19. The Transport Ministry dragged its feet in reappointing the regulatory bodies that award or rescind regional traffic rights and process applications by new domestic market entrants. Both councils had been out of action since their three-year terms of office expired at the end of March 2021. A shortlist of candidates was published in the government gazette on December 10. Still, it took Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula a further three months to approve it, despite his assurances to the industry that the matter would be dealt with speedily.

The delay prompted industry suspicions that it was aimed at protecting South African Airways, which emerged from bankruptcy protection in September 2021 with its route rights intact. Had the councils been active, they would have been legally compelled to revoke SAA's unused traffic rights.

The Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) - which represents most of the airlines in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and which had been lobbying the government to expedite the matter - also welcomed the appointments and called on the two councils to swiftly clear the backlog of licence applications.

"While we congratulate Cabinet on confirming the appointments of the new councillors, there is much work to be done and no time to rest. The absence of functioning councils for almost a year held back South Africa's airlines and prevented them from providing the economic and social benefits that air connectivity provides by facilitating trade, tourism, and travel. The councils' resumption will be a great relief for South Africa's travel and tourism sector as it seeks to rebuild following the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions," said AASA Chief Executive Officer Aaron Munetsi.

CemAir Chief Executive Officer Miles van der Molen said the industry was hoping for a robust international council, pointing out it had a daunting task ahead with route applications that had piled up over the past year, probably including documents that had expired in the interim. He said the dysfunctioning regulators had benefited some airlines with monopolies on some regional routes, while the route rights of SAA and its subsidiary Mango Airlines (in business rescue) had effectively been mothballed.

Airlink (South Africa) cautiously welcomed the appointment of the new councils, stressing the importance that they start moving quickly. "What is important is for the councils to swiftly adjudicate applications and make available route licences currently held by entities no longer in business or that are unable to provide the necessary services so that Airlink and South African-based airlines can compete with foreign carriers, enhance connectivity and help to grow our economy and create new jobs," said Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director, Rodger Foster.

According to the Cabinet statement, the five new members of the International Air Services Council are led by chairperson Nomveliso Ntanjana, the principal legal counsel at South Africa's consumer watchdog Competition Commission. Other members are Nare Thupana (vice-chairperson), Grant Reagon Son, Tumelo Chipfupa, and Pfumelani Dorcas Mbulayeni.

The new five-member domestic Air Services Licensing Council is chaired by business consultant and chief executive officer of LPG Holdings, Leroy Musa Nsibande; with Raesibe Sharon Kekana (vice-chairperson), Rickie Rodger Rennie, Zonica Leanda Mtshali, and Ramovha Emmanuel Mbuwe as members.