The Real Reason Behind Delta Air Lines Cutting Cape Town Plans

Delta Air Lines recently announced it would be returning to South Africa from August. While the airline has maintained plans to run flights on a triangle routing from Atlanta to Johannesburg to Cape Town to Atlanta, the airline abruptly reversed course on those plans just last week. Now, regulatory filings provide some detail as to the real reason why the American carrier has axed its plans to fly to Cape Town.

Delta Airbus A350
Delta Air Lines has had to cut its Cape Town stop after being denied government approval to operate the routing. Photo: Delta Air Lines

Delta did not receive permissions

Delta Air Lines, in 2020, announced plans to fly an Atlanta (ATL) – Johannesburg (JNB) – Cape Town (CPT) – ATL routing. Using an Airbus A350-900, the airline wanted to fly to and from South Africa without needing to take a payload hit on its Airbus A350-900s. However, it has now been revealed that the airline did not receive the regulatory permissions needed to operate such flights.

According to a US Department of Transportation (DOT) filing, Delta Air Lines needed approval from the South Africa Department of Transportation (SADOT) to fly the routing, even though it did not want the rights to fly passengers solely between Cape Town and Johannesburg. The airline filed with SADOT in May 2020 for coterminalization authority to run the route.

Delta Airbus A350
Delta announced in the first half of 2020 that it planned to add Cape Town to its network. Photo: Delta Air Lines

Since then, Delta followed up with the South African government and even got the US government to reach out for an answer on approval. But, unfortunately for Delta, SADOT informed the carrier and the DOT that Delta would not receive the necessary permissions to run the JNB-CPT routing, citing that the US and South Africa 1996 Air Transport Agreement “does not confer domestic coterminalization rights for designated airlines of both countries.”

Without those permissions and Delta’s desire to reinstate flights to South Africa, it then had to scrap its plans to serve Cape Town and instead scheduled the Airbus A350-900 to fly nonstop between Atlanta and Johannesburg.

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The DOT retaliates

The DOT believes that the South African government’s decision was an incorrect unilateral reinterpretation of the air transport agreement between the two countries. In return, it has decided to deny South African Airways (SAA) the right to fly coterminal points in the United States.

South African Airways previously had approval from the DOT to fly coterminal routes. So, the airline could fly, for example, from Johannesburg to New York to Los Angeles. However, it would not have permission to fly passengers solely between Johannesburg and New York.

This is similar to approval for Qantas to operate a tag flight from Los Angeles to New York to funnel its own passengers arriving in Los Angeles to its own aircraft to New York without picking up any local passengers.

The DOT has decided to deny SAA’s ability to run coterminal flights in the United States. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

This is not necessarily a blow to SAA. Setting aside the uncertainty around when, or if, SAA will return flying to the United States, even before the crisis hit, SAA was not flying coterminal routings in the United States. It is, however, the DOT’s response to South Africa’s stance against Delta’s flight.

It is unclear exactly what South Africa’s problem with the Delta flight is. Singapore Airlines also flies to Johannesburg and the same plane continues onward to Cape Town without picking up local passengers, so there is a precedent for running such flights.

Why Delta may need to add Cape Town

The level of necessity with which Delta has to fly to Cape Town is unclear. But the story for this service starts in the mid-2000s. Delta Air Lines wanted to fly to South Africa, but it did not have the aircraft to operate the route nonstop. So, in 2006, Delta Air Lines began serving Johannesburg from Atlanta via a stop in Dakar, Senegal.

Delta Air Lines was also a customer for the Boeing 777-200LR. That aircraft enabled the airline to eliminate the Dakar stop and fly nonstop between Johannesburg and Atlanta starting in 2009. Johannesburg is a hot and high airport, so aircraft performance is limited. The 777-200LR could fly the route with minimal payload restrictions and served the route reliably for 11 years.

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The Boeing 777-200LR was an important aircraft for Delta. Photo: Delta Air Lines

When the crisis hit, Delta Air Lines suspended services to South Africa and started to re-evaluate its fleet. One of the early widebody decisions it made was to retire all of its Boeing 777 aircraft, including the 777-200LRs. The plan was to replace all 777-operated routes with Airbus A350s. Delta would also acquire some enhanced A350s that could make the longest routes in the carrier’s network, served by the 777-200LRs, viable with minimal payload restrictions.

The problem was that Delta did not immediately have any of those aircraft coming, and it was going to wait for the jets to enter the airline’s fleet in the coming years before resuming services on many of those routes. However, with Johannesburg, Delta was keen to get that service back in the air, especially with SAA out of the US to South Africa market.

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Delta even put its latest and greatest Delta One Suite in service to Johannesburg, which was the carrier’s longest route before it was suspended. Photo: Jay Singh | Simple Flying

The Airbus A350-900s Delta flew would take a payload hit if they flew nonstop between Johannesburg and Atlanta. So, to avoid that, the airline decided to route its flying back to Atlanta via Cape Town. That’s where the SADOT threw a wrench into the carrier’s plans.

Delta does want to fly to Johannesburg. The route performed well for the airline for years, and the market dynamics have shifted in Delta’s favor. The question now is whether the airline can comfortably fly its Airbus A350-900s nonstop on the way back from Johannesburg.

Delta indicated that the A350-900 would have the capability to make the route work, and it appeared the airline was planning on using a newer Airbus A350 that could do the route nonstop. Any expected payload hit was not immediately clear.

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There are still some questions to be answered on Delta’s Airbus A350 performance from Johannesburg. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

While a one-stop return to the US may not be competitive, it could be necessary for Delta to make the flight work economically. Cape Town is not a hot and high airport, so the Airbus A350 is not expected to face many difficulties doing the nonstop return to Atlanta from Cape Town. It is unclear if Delta would seek to return to its Cape Town plans if the SADOT reverses course.

In a separate filing, Delta did state that “as a result of commercial, operational, and market developments making it feasible for Delta to operate a direct return routing of Atlanta-Johannesburg-Atlanta using 306-seat Airbus A350-900 aircraft, Delta no longer plans to operate the triangle routing of Atlanta-Johannesburg-Cape Town-Atlanta.” This makes it seem like Delta has taken delivery of enhanced A350s that can run the route or is expecting low enough load factors to make the route work for now.

Time will tell if there is another chapter to this saga. Delta seems confident in the Airbus A350’s ability to make the route work nonstop, though its tune may change if SADOT gives it permission to operate with a stop in Cape Town.

What do you make of this situation? Let us know in the comments!