Pietermaritzburg - Travellers who use Pietermaritzburg Airport will benefit from cheaper and more scheduled flights to Joburg with the announcement by SA Express that it will fly out of the KZN capital from November.
Privately owned SA Airlink has had a monopoly at the airport as the only airline having daily scheduled services between Pietermaritzburg and Joburg.
It is believed that the two feeder airlines had a “gentlemen’s agreement” that SA Express would focus on Richards Bay Airport and SA Airlink on Pietermaritzburg. As the competition is now set to heat up, SA Airlink said last week that it would start flights between Joburg and Richards Bay.
Brian van Wyk, the commercial general manager at SA Express, said the airline was not aiming to start a “price war” with Airlink. The new route to Pietermaritzburg was part of an expansion plan with other new routes including Cape Town to George and Joburg to Nelspruit.
“Airlink previously held a monopoly in these markets and the competition does not fall foul of any provision of the competition law,” SA Express said.
“With the launch of new routes by SA Express in November, consumers will be benefiting from the positive effects of competition. The airline’s big aim is to make the cost of flying much more affordable as well as grow the market.”
But Rob Baker, an industry commentator and owner of leading online travel agency SouthAfrica.TO, said in a recent report that it was clearly a case of “the gloves coming off”, with SA Express set to “take on Airlink on its money-spinner routes”.
Baker added: “For a long time there’s been a somewhat cosy relationship between Airlink and the state-owned carriers, where they avoided taking each other on directly – this seems to be over… The rumour is that this was on direct instruction from the Department of Public Enterprises and that it’s now open season for SA Express to take on Airlink on any routes it chooses.”
Meanwhile, Van Wyk said SA Express believed it could offer a better product at a more competitive price.
“As an airline, we are continuously looking for innovative ways to be responsive to our passengers’ needs. Our studies show that there is enough passenger growth and market demand for another operator to fly these routes, and we believe that by offering competitive fares, we will stimulate demand and make these routes even more popular than they currently are,” he said.
Van Wyk said SA Express welcomed SA Airlink’s flying on some of its routes, as the competition was good for consumers. The airline would fly the turboprop Dash 8 Q400 on the Pietermaritzburg route. It could carry 74 passengers.
“We have very fuel-efficient aircraft that make our cost-per-seat prices more reasonable, so we will provide a much cheaper fare than the current operators,” he said.
SA Express would not reveal prices as yet. SA Airlink’s flights for an economy ticket out of Pietermaritzburg range from around R750 to R1 200 one way.
While SA Airlink welcomed competition, spokeswoman Karin Murray, said this would “admittedly have a negative effect on Airlink”. It operates four return flights out of Pietermaritzburg on 35-seater and 85-seater jets.
“Competing for the same passengers and revenue will undoubtedly present added challenges. But that is the nature of free market competition,” she said. - The Mercury