There is much uncertainty over when South African airlines will resume flight operations, with South African Airways’ (SAA's) goal of mid-June overturned by its business rescue practitioners, and the country’s other major airlines hesitant to restart flights.

SAA suspended all operations in March under level five lockdown restrictions, with level four currently in place. Level three will kick in from June 1, allowing for domestic air travel for business purposes only. However, there has been little clarification from government on what this entails and how it will work.

SAA in a statement on May 26 said it will retain its domestic schedule between Johannesburg O.R. Tambo and Cape Town from mid-June 2020, and added that it was looking forward to resuming domestic services.

SAA also said it is cancelling all planned scheduled flights on regional and international services until the end of June 2020 with immediate effect “as a result of the continuing global impact of the coronavirus pandemic.”

However, on May 27 SAA’s business rescue practitioners (BRPs) Les Matuson and Siviwe Dongwana said in a statement that the airline’s announcement was in violation of the communication protocol that was established to prevent statements being sent out without being vetted and that SAA flights would remain grounded until it was clear what the move to level three lockdown meant for domestic air travel.

Airlines are hesitant to resume operations from June. FlySafair (FA, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo), for example, is unlikely to resume flights under level three restrictions. Chief marketing officer Kirby Gordon on May 26 said it might be more expensive to resume operations under level three when demand is curtailed, and that it will not resume flights from June 1.

"As it stands, flights will not be allowed to commence on June 1, 2020, but will be phased in later, with dates to be announced. FlySafair anticipates additional limitations and regulations to be imposed for airlines to become compliant under level three. The airline eagerly awaits the promulgation of this information from the Department of Transport so that it can plan accordingly,” Gordon is quoted by the Independent Online as saying. He earlier hinted that FlySafair might resume flights under level two restrictions.

Elmar Conradie, Safair (FA, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) CEO, told ch-aviation “We don’t know whether we will be able to operate under level 3 as they [the government] have not given us any guidelines on dates or what ‘business travel’ means. As soon as we have more information from the government, we can evaluate and decide as to when we will start flying again.”

According to FlySafair’s website, tickets are available from July 1.

Comair (South Africa) (MN, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo), which operates a British Airways (BA, London Heathrow) franchise and the low-cost Kulula Air brand, but which is currently under business rescue, is not planning on flying anytime soon. On April 30 the airline issued a cautionary announcement, saying that, "in terms of the government’s requirements, it is not anticipated that Comair will commence operating prior to October or November 2020.”

Susan van der Ryst, head of corporate communications at Comair, told ch-aviation that the carrier plans to resume scheduled operations in November. "The group has entered voluntary business rescue process is to restructure so it can take to the skies again as a sustainable enterprise and play its part in the country’s airline industry and economic revival," she said.

Comair has been unable to operate since March 17 due to the lockdown and said it made an operating loss for the six months ending December 31, 2019, of ZAR562 million rand (USD32 million).

Low-cost carrier Mango Airlines (JE, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) said on April 24 that it has suspended all flights until May 31 and “anticipates to resume services from June 1, 2020.” It said travel vouchers would be sent to passengers affected by the suspension. According to the airline’s websites, most flights from June 1 are sold out already, with tickets only available from the second week of next month.

Airlink (South Africa) (4Z, Johannesburg O.R. Tambo) was not immediately available for comment.

Under South Africa’s lockdown regulations, full domestic air travel will only be permitted under risk level two and regional and international air travel at level one. This is putting enormous strain on the local airline sector. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) on May 27 said it estimates revenues generated by airlines in the South African market will fall by ZAR55 billion (USD3 billion) in 2020, 56% below 2019 levels. That puts at risk 252,100 South African jobs and ZAR93 billion (USD5.1 billion) of South Africa’s gross domestic product, which is generated by aviation directly and air transport-dependent tourism.

“Aviation is vital for connecting markets and moving people and goods between them. It is not an indulgence of the rich, but an enabler of economic wealth for everyone. Without a viable air transport sector, recovery will be drawn out and painful. South Africa’s economy had already slowed before the crisis, with unemployment at record levels. Fully supporting aviation now is critical if the economy is to expand at a pace that will make a positive difference to its citizens’ lives,” said Muhammad Albakri, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Africa and the Middle East.

IATA, the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA), and the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (BARSA) called on the South African government to provide specific financial relief to the aviation sector to address the severe impact of the COVID-19 crisis.