South Africans are flying again

South Africa’s aviation sector is finally showing some promising signs of recovery, following two years of Covid-19 restrictions that impacted the global industry severely, with 2022 expected to be a year of steady rebound and renewed activity.

New data published by the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) shows a 48% recovery in passenger throughput for the financial year ending March 2022. This comes after air traffic in the 2021/2022 financial year was impacted by the third and fourth waves of new infections, which were proliferated by the Delta and Omicron variants, respectively.

To put the impact of the pandemic into perspective, figures published by International Air Transport Association (IATA) reveal that 2020 was the worst year on record for the aviation industry.

In 2020, only 1.8 billion passengers flew, which was a decrease of 60.2% compared to the 4.5 billion who flew in 2019. Industry-wide air travel demand dropped by 65.9% year-on-year, with international passenger demand decreasing by 75.6% compared to the year before and domestic air passenger demand dropping by 48.8%.

“ACSA is encouraged by the passenger movement numbers across all of its airports, as they are showing steady growth and recovery for both domestic and international travel,” said chief executive Mpumi Mpofu.

“The domestic segment for the year ending March 2022 has recorded a 56% passenger throughput of the pre-Covid level, while regional and international segments continue to lag. But I must emphasise that different factors affect the recovery rates of the various segments, and thus these rates of rebound cannot be directly compared.”

Mpofu pointed out that ACSA’s regional airports, on the coast and inland, are recovering faster because of their small/soft base, with traffic primarily attributed to travel into these airports being largely domestic and for the purpose of leisure, visiting friends and family/relatives (VFR) traffic.

“On the other hand, the meeting, incentive travel, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) and business market segments have been heavily impacted due to reduced travel budgets and the rapid development of virtual meeting and conferencing platforms. These segments, including government, accounted for over 50% of the traffic at the three international gateway airports in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape,” she said.

Path to recovery

OR Tambo International Airport pre-Covid (2019/2020) for both international and domestic travel had a total of 1.8 million combined passenger movements for both arrivals and departures.

For the year 2021/2022, the airport continues on its recovery path and has had a combined total of 1.3 million passenger movement for both arrivals and departures. Even during its recovery process, OR Tambo continues to handle the highest number of passenger movements among all ACSA airports.

Additionally, a significant portion of OR Tambo traffic of close to 50% is cross-border travel within the region and global markets, which were severely disrupted by the global travel bans. The rebound in cross-border traffic has accelerated its recovery to just under 64% in March 22, the highest monthly recovery rate since the start of the pandemic.

“It must be emphasised that OR Tambo International’s recovery has lagged due to its air travel demand being largely influenced by corporate/business traffic, which is the most severely affected market segment and its extensive route network covering all habitant continents pre-Covid 19,” said Mpofu.

Domestic resurgence

King Shaka International Airport has seen a resurgence in domestic travel, with a combined total of 539,257 domestic passenger movements for 2022/2023.

Pre-Covid, Cape Town International Airport, for both domestic and international travel, had a combined total of 928,350 passenger movements. Cape Town International has recorded a combined passenger movement of 698,701 for both domestic and international travel in 2021/22.

George Airport passenger movement numbers have grown since pre-Covid from 33,217 to 35,753 for domestic arrivals. The rest of the regional airports are catching up fast to pre-Covid-19 figures, and ACSA is confident of a full recovery in the next year.

“Regional Airports have contributed significantly to Acsa’s recovery, with George and Bram Fischer Airports experiencing passenger throughput of over 96% and 84%, respectively, in March 2022. The regional airports market is largely driven by a mix of domestic leisure and VFR traffic and a bit of business, which continues to lead the air travel recovery,” Mpofu said.

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