‘You can’t reopen SA without reopening the air’

News

‘You can’t reopen SA without reopening the air’

As it suffers through slashed salaries and unpaid leave, airline industry says the days of cheap flights are over

Journalist
In happier days, the inaugural Airlink flight from SA lands at St Helena Airport in 2017.
TAKING A SOAKING In happier days, the inaugural Airlink flight from SA lands at St Helena Airport in 2017.
Image: PAUL ASH

Employees of local airlines Airlink and Flysafair will go on unpaid leave from Friday as the carriers join other South African businesses in the desperate scramble for survival. 

Most of Airlink’s 1,750 staff had already taken a 30% pay cut, while managers’ salaries were halved.

“It breaks my heart,” said the airline’s CEO, Rodger Foster, who had cut his salary entirely. “The lockdown has been detrimental to our business.”

The airline’s operations had been reduced to a handful of charter flights for essential services each week.

Low-cost carrier Flysafair’s 1,200 staff were also riding out the lockdown at home, said airline spokesperson Kirby Gordon.

Aviation has a role to play in opening up the economy.
Airlines Association of Southern Africa CEO Chris Zweigenthal

The airline, which had hoped to resume flights on April 20, had managed to avoid retrenchments, he said. 

“We’re in high spirits. Our lot is a lot better than many other people’s,” Gordon said.

Flysafair had announced earlier in the week that it would make the middle seat on its aircraft available at a discounted rate for passengers who wanted to ensure physical distancing between them and other passengers in their row.

The airline had planned to sell the seats for R750, which, as Gordon pointed out, was cheaper than buying a second ticket.

However, its inventory had since been removed from the market until the end of May while it waits for government’s next move.

With airlines still not able to resume flights under level four lockdown restrictions, an air of uncertainty pervades the industry.

“The restrictions only really lift at level one,” said Chris Zweigenthal, CEO of the Airlines Association of Southern Africa.

Meanwhile, airlines are champing at the bit. The industry had made submissions to government in the hope of restoring some flights.

“We believe aviation has a role to play in opening up the economy,” said Zweigenthal.

“It’s pivotal to business being able to operate.” 

He said aviation being safe and highly regulated meant many standards and recommended practices were already in place and that it complied with International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) protocols. 

“We believe we can put measures in place to safeguard the interests of passengers, as well as the entire industry, and ensure there is no spread of the virus through air travel.”

Gordon said the airline would implement various protocols and procedures to keep passengers and crew safe when it resumed flights.

If we lose 50% of our seats, we will have to price accordingly.
Airlink CEO Rodger Foster

All passengers would be required to wear sanitised face masks aboard flights. 

“We’ve added a R20 tax to fund the masks and there’s plenty hand sanitiser,” said Gordon.

Passengers’ temperatures would also be screened at check-in and before boarding. 

Surfaces in the aircraft would be disinfected and “fogged” between flights, and every night the plane cabins would be cleaned with an electrostatic sprayer.

“The cleaning is pretty intense,” he said.

Meanwhile, social-distancing requirements were likely to mean an end to cheap flights, as it would mean airlines, already strapped with high costs and low margins, would sell fewer seats on their aircraft.

“If government says it’s a requirement, then technically we can do that,” said Gordon. “But it will be made up in the pricing.”

Foster agreed. “If we lose 50% of our seats, we will have to price accordingly.”

Foster hoped the industry’s lobbying efforts would yield swift results with government.

“They’ve got it wrong,” he said. “You can’t open up industry without opening air access.”

The interprovincial and cross-border restrictions would pose challenges, but he argued that air travel posed less of a risk of spreading the virus.

Foster hoped the submission would result in a firm date for airlines to restart operations.

Until then, he said, “our mission is to survive”.