Cathay Pacific, Ethiopian Airlines eye dramatic increase in flights to SA | Business
  • Cathay Pacific and Ethiopian Airlines want to increase their direct flights drastically – including routes via Durban and more to Cape Town.
  • Cathay Pacific intends to fly from Hong Kong to South Africa 11 times a week, including one direct weekly flight to Durban.
  • Ethiopian Airlines wants to up its weekly tally to 35 direct flights.
  • For more financial news, go to the News24 Business front page.

Cathay Pacific and Ethiopian Airlines want to dramatically increase the number of weekly flights they operate between their respective countries and South Africa’s major airports, according to notices published in this week’s Government Gazette.

But aviation analysts told News24 Business it’s still early days – and they doubt airlines will receive permission to fly on all routes they request.

Cathay Pacific, yet to resume operations to SA, eyes 11 direct flights

Cathay Pacific – which is yet to commence flying to South Africa after a Covid-19 hiatus – wants to up its planned three weekly direct flights from Hong Kong to South Africa to eleven. 

Of those, most would fly directly to Johannesburg, but four would go directly to Cape Town and one to Durban.

Although the gazetting process is primarily to enable comment and feedback from the public before licenses are awarded, Cathay Pacific told News24 Business they have “received permission to operate the Cape Town and Durban routes as per the official government gazette”.

“We are committed to gradually serve our customers with more flights from more cities as demand picks up in the future,” the airline’s Anand Yedery told News24 Business.

Cathay Pacific’s links to China, and that country’s BRICS relations with South Africa, are one likely possibility for the expansion, says airline analyst Phuthego Mojapele – with another being that Cathay Pacific is now home to many staff who previously worked at South African Airways.

“Cathay Pacific also has a lot of former SAA pilots. The majority of them are there. It might also be part of a commuting strategy for those working in China, and they may also be looking at expanding more into South Africa and getting more personnel from South Africa in the form of engineers, pilots, and cabin crew, for example,” says Mojapele.

The slightly more curious route directly to Durban may have something to do with the Indian market, too – a strategy that previously tripped up SAA.

“They may want to target passengers with connectivity to India. But the volume of Indian passengers routing in and out of Durban did not tally when SAA previously tried to implement that route,” says Mojapele.

The request for additional direct flights comes after Cathay Pacific’s announcement in April this year that they will finally resume flights from South Africa to Hong Kong and onward to Thailand and Bali. 

This announcement was for just three weekly flights to Johannesburg – with its latest notice signalling early intentions to dramatically increase their passenger numbers in and out of the country.

Despite the intended expansion, Cathay Pacific has struggled to right itself since the Covid-19 pandemic and is still operating on a small scale, says Mojapele.

“Hong Kong is still not fully open after Covid, and neither is China. So they still have limitations, and they’ve not done so well lately. Their strategy may therefore be to see where they can hit the ground running,” he says. 

Aviation analyst Lynden Birns says Cathay Pacific’s desired expansion may also have its origins in SAA’s absence, which has created a capacity shortage on some routes.

“We’ve seen how the two big American carriers have stepped up on transatlantic flights. China has only just reopened its markets to travel after Covid. So a lot of capacity has been taken out of the market in terms of flights to China,” says Birns. “And Hong Kong is a destination on its own, but it’s also a great launch into Asia.” 

Ethiopian requests 

Ethiopian Airlines’ expansion plans appear slightly more contentious. They include 35 direct flights per week to South Africa, 14 of which would skip over Johannesburg and fly direct to Cape Town. 

However, the airline, which has modelled itself as a global hub, may have some difficulty obtaining a Foreign Operator’s Permit (FOP) from South Africa if they follow through with speculated plans to use Togo as a stopover to better serve the American market travelling to South Africa.

“Ethiopian Airlines were planning to operate a flight out of Lomé, Togo, to South Africa – yet they were approved to fly out of Addis Ababa. They’re doing that to tap into their US services that stop over in Lomé, who they want to bring to Johannesburg or Cape Town without taking them all the way to Addis,” says Mojapele.

“Togo is a different country and not an extension of Ethiopia. And therefore, the FOP should also be speaking to what they want to do. They’re not trying to run all of their services out of Addis and want to reroute them to different places. FOPs will not be approved if that’s how they plan to do it.” 

Likely pushback from domestic airlines

Moreover, both airlines will likely get some pushback from domestic carriers operating on routes between Joburg, Cape Town, and Durban.

For these reasons, Mojapele believes it’s unlikely Ethiopian Airlines will obtain all the licenses they’re applying for.

“They’re not all going to be approved. I can tell you right away. They will not. We need to fight for our own airlines and protect them and other small ones that are coming up,” says Mojapele.

Whatever the outcome, Birns says the application for new routes will take some time – and may be an opportunity to move away from bilateral agreements historically focused on protecting national carriers. 

Instead, the expanding routes in the absence of SAA may represent a move towards favouring tourism and the local economy.

“Countries have to decide what’s more important – growing their economy or having a national airline that makes money for the state,” says Birns.

* Ethiopian Airlines did not immediately respond to requests to comment.

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