The Airline Association of Southern Africa (AASA) has warned that the lack of jet fuel at Cape Town International Airport could lead to disruptions in airline schedules and possibly flight cancellations.
AASA said this comes at a time when the industry is already under immense pressure due to operational and cost issues.
“These restrictions are now likely to result in disruptions to airline schedules and possibly cancelled flights at a time when the industry and the economy can ill afford it,” it said.
Cape Town’s airport has only a few days left of fuel, with shipments set to reach South Africa later than expected at the beginning of October. The airport said on Monday (27 September) that the fuel shortage will not disrupt flights; however, AASA thinks differently.
“The escalation of jet fuel rations throws into sharp focus South Africa’s vulnerability because of its reliance on imported jet fuel,” said AASA.
The group called on government and fuel suppliers to move with urgency and put in place a robust and resilient plan to ensure sufficient stocks of aviation fuel are always available.
“Although our local and regional short-haul airlines are able to tanker fuel – i.e. carry more than optimally required for a single flight – to maintain their schedules, in doing so, they must incur additional costs as the extra fuel load increases the overall weight of each plane, in turn burning more fuel just to carry the extra contingency supply,” the association said.
According to AASA, this puts further cost pressures on airlines at a time when they are already struggling with a rise in the price of jet fuel, higher finance charges and interest rates, as well as increased labour and other costs.
Kirby Gordon, chief marketing officer at FlySafair, said that jet fuel has increased by around 220% over the last year and makes up about 50% of total operating costs – up from 30% previously.
This is a huge deterrent for airlines to expand flights and operations, especially because they have to fly further between economic hubs in South Africa, he said.
As a result of increased operational costs and high demand for tickets – immediate travel often draws higher prices, in the R2,000 to R3,000 range per ticket.
AASA said that local airlines also depend heavily on feed traffic to and from long-haul inter-continental carriers, many of which will be unable to tanker fuel over such great distances.
Such airlines may now have to resort to intermediate en-route refuelling stops or fly to Johannesburg or Durban to fill up before starting their long north and east-bound return flights.
“AASA urges the government to waive the additional on-route air navigation and airport fees airlines will incur in order to comply with the fuel rations at Cape Town and continue to provide the inter-continental connectivity that local airlines and the entire region’s economy depend on.”
In May of this year, OR Tambo International Airport in Gauteng also had a jet fuel shortage.
The Jet Fuel Forum Committee (JFF) said that jet fuel had been constrained at the airport, forcing some international airlines to divert flights to Durban and Windhoek to refuel on their return journeys. It added that two flights were cancelled due to shortages.
South Africa’s domestic air travel has been in an uproar since Comair, the parent company of both British Airways in South Africa and Kulula, fell into business rescue and was subsequently liquidated.
The liquidation resulted in South Africa’s overall flight capacity being almost halved, with 40% taken offline. FlySafair’s Gordon said the airline market lost approximately 9,000 seats a week.
Out of the country’s eight domestic airlines that were in operation pre-Covid-19, only four remain: FlySafair, Lift, CemAir and Airlink. Other airlines – SA Express, Kulula, British Airways and Mango – have all been grounded or liquidated, taking significant capacity out of the skies.
The remaining airlines have slowly been building up added capacity, with Lift and FlySafair in particular adding more flights in recent weeks, with more to come in the months ahead.