Why Airlines Aren’t Rushing To Fill SAA’s Popular Regional Routes

With state-owned South African Airways (SAA) grounded until July, its absence has impacted regional networks. Ideally, private airlines would have jumped at the chance to fill Southern Africa’s busy regional routes, previously dominated by SAA. However, government regulations are preventing airlines from filling in these routes.

South African Airways A340
Despite SAA’s long grounding, private airlines have been unable to gain access to key regional routes. Photo: Bahnfrend via Wikimedia Commons

Cut off

According to The South African, the prolonged absence of SAA has resulted in limited connectivity on key routes in Southern Africa. Usually, routes operated by grounded airlines are released temporarily to other carriers to maintain connectivity. However, the South African government has refused to do so.

This means private airlines have been unable to take over routes previously flown by SAA and SAA Express, frustrating passengers and leaving vital connections untended. The government’s protectionist move was likely made to ensure SAA doesn’t have competition when it resumes flights. However, the move has hurt impacted passengers.

SAA takeoff
Regional routes were extremely profitable for SAA, making them critical to the airline’s future recovery. Photo: Getty Images

In many cases, what were previously direct routes are now requiring detours and stops. Even popular destinations like Nairobi no longer have direct connections.

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But why?

SAA and SAA Express both operated regional routes that were quite profitable for the airlines. To protect competition from private airlines on these routes, South Africa’s Air Services Licensing Council (ASLC) has refused to approve new airline schedules.

Carriers like Airlink, which could take over several routes if they were to open up, have pointed out that the ALSC is required to assess air traffic routes and revoke them from dormant airlines. However, the ALSC has not made such a decision, leaving a connectivity vacuum.

Airlink E190
Private airlines have been unable to step in and fill connectivity gaps due to the government’s actions. Photo: Emirates

Airlines have lodged complaints with the ALSC, citing the inaction on dormant routes. However, change is not expected to occur swiftly, drawing the ire of airline executives. In a statement seen by The South African, one airline CEO said,

“Why should South Africans be penalised by limited air connectivity due to SA Express and SAA’s inability to restart their operations, when private role players are available to service these routes immediately?” 

The SAA saga

Much of the current issue arises from the continued grounding of South African Airways. While the government hopes to have the airlines back in the skies by April, realistic estimates suggest no earlier than July. The airline is currently enacting a business turnaround plan after receiving R10.5bn ($698mn) from the government in October. However, disagreement over how to use the funding has slowed down the process.

South African remains in hibernation for now, with its future up in the air. Photo: Getty Images

While SAA might be grounded, affiliated airlines have cut ties and moved on. Former franchisee Airlink has rebranded itself and quickly become South Africa’s second-biggest airline. Despite growth in the market, without regional routes, passengers will continue to struggle to reach their destinations.

What do you think about South Africa’s decision to block regional route access? Let us know in the comments!