Flight prices, particularly on the busiest domestic route between Johannesburg and Cape Town, have spiked substantially following the collapse of Comair, which accounted for as much as 40% of supply in the market.
Airlines have been accused of price gouging from all quarters, but unfairly so as their pricing algorithms are based on demand.
Along with the supply crunch, where the number of seats on routes is down by approximately 9 000 a week, business travel also seems to have rebounded somewhat.
And fuel prices are at record highs, meaning that fares will also be structurally higher.
All of this has seen prices for near-term flights on the Joburg-Cape Town route spiking to over R6 000 for a return ticket.
What’s on offer
A Moneyweb analysis of same-day return flights for this week shows the ‘cheapest’ option (CemAir) at just under R5 000 on Friday.
Flights on Tuesday and Wednesday will cost R6 000 or more (on Lift or Airlink), while a return flight on SAA on Friday totals R5 600.
Because of the limited number of available seats, there aren’t really any cheaper near-term flights at ‘off peak’ times. This has dreadful consequences for those who need to travel at the last minute due to an emergency.
The supply crunch is perhaps most acutely seen on the country’s largest airline by volume, FlySafair, where there are no seats at all available for travel down to Cape Town from Johannesburg until Saturday. This despite the fact that the airline operates as many as 14 return flights between the two cities per day (with an additional three flights from Lanseria).
FlySafair operates nearly as many flights between these two cities – a total of 17 – as the other four airlines put together (six each for Airlink and SAA, five for Lift and four for CemAir).
|OR Tambo to Cape Town International||‘Cheapest’ same-day return this week (from Monday 11 July)*||‘Cheapest’ same-day return next week (from Monday 18 July)*|
|FlySafair||R1 831 – no seats available until Saturday (returning Wednesday 13 July at 20:00)||R2 264 – Friday 22 July (05:55 departure, 16:40 return)|
|Airlink||R6 220 – Wednesday 13 July (06:20 departure, 15:15 return)||R3 081 – Wednesday 20 July (06:20 departure, 17:55 return)|
|SAA||R5 635 – Friday 15 July (06:05 departure, 17:00 return)||R3 221 – Wednesday 20 July (06:05 departure, 19:30 return)|
|Lift||R5 999.99 – Tuesday 12 July (06:50 departure, 16:30 return)||R2 900 – Friday 22 July (06:50 departure, 19:00 return)|
|CemAir||R4 889 – Friday 15 July (06:10 departure, 20:30 return)||R3 624 – Wednesday 20 July (06:10 departure, 19:30 return)|
* As at 5pm on Sunday, flights with ‘no bag’ selected, where available.
Prices drop noticeably after about 10 days, with return same-day flights available at between R2 264 (FlySafair) and R3 624 (CemAir).
By the end of the month, a return same-day flight (no checked baggage) can be booked for R2 062 on FlySafair.
Prices are elevated on other popular routes too, including Joburg-Durban and Cape Town-Durban. On the latter, only FlySafair offers direct flights. Airlink’s two daily options stop in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth). FlySafair operates six daily return flights on this route and the Durban to Cape Town leg is effectively sold out until next Monday.
Racing to meet demand
Airlines – particularly FlySafair and Airlink – continue their expansion at pace.
By the third week of June, FlySafair had already operated 41% more flights than it did in June 2019. It said last month it would add four aircraft to its fleet before the end of the year, with a fifth plane to join in early 2023. One has already been added, with the remaining three to arrive in September, October and November. It separately said it would take up an offer to lease two aircraft that had formerly formed part of Comair’s fleet from their owners.
It has applied to the Air Services Licensing Council for rights to operate several regional routes including Zanzibar, Maputo, Lusaka, Livingstone, Gaborone, Victoria Falls, Bulawayo, Nairobi, Luanda, and the Seychelles. Many of these were previously serviced by Comair’s British Airways flights.
FlySafair has also applied for “additional weekly frequencies to Mauritius”, a route it already operates twice a week. The deployment of the next three Boeing 737s will depend on the outcome of these applications.
Before the demise of Comair, Airlink already had 29% more seats, 54% more passengers and 8% more flights than before the Covid-19 pandemic. While it operates smaller planes (mostly from Brazilian manufacturer Embraer), it plans to increase its fleet from 57 to 62 in the next few months.
Lift increased its frequency between Joburg and Cape Town to as many as seven flights a day, but this seems to have been pared back to five. It is understood that Lift is considering entering the Johannesburg-Durban route soon (although the absence of competition on the Cape Town-Durban route may have it studying this opportunity).
Regional operator CemAir, which has historically flown to far smaller destinations, has been steadily expanding onto mainline routes. It has also applied to fly to Gaborone and Maputo. Since February, it has reportedly added a new aircraft to its operation each month, growing its fleet by nearly 20%. Two more planes are scheduled to arrive before the end of 2022.
And SAA continues to do what SAA does, with a fleet of just six operating aircraft (three of which seem to be used on local routes).