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CemAir stays in the air despite lockdown restrictions 'to retain trust'

Wendy Knowler Consumer journalist
Masked commuters queue at OR Tambo International Airport. Local airlines are taking different approaches to the lockdown limitations on air travel.
Masked commuters queue at OR Tambo International Airport. Local airlines are taking different approaches to the lockdown limitations on air travel.
Image: Alaister Russell

“There’s a big risk of denting passenger trust when you suspend flights for several weeks.”

So says Miles van der Molen, CEO of CemAir, explaining why the airline opted keep flying despite dramatically reduced passenger bookings and thousands of cancellations in recent weeks.

“Of course the president’s announcement of the move to adjusted level 4 restrictions on June 27 and the ban on non-essential flights to Gauteng led to a massive wave of flight cancellations,” he said.

But the loss of appetite for flying happened long before that.

“We saw bookings go down by 25% about two months before Sunday’s announcement,” Van der Molen said. “That’s because people know now that new restrictions happen suddenly and they are looking down the road.”

CemAir operates eight aircraft, flying from Johannesburg to Durban, Cape Town, Bloemfontein, George, Margate, Kimberley, Hoedspruit and Plettenberg Bay.

A report published in TimesLIVE on Friday stated incorrectly that FlySafair, Mango and Airlink would be the only domestic airlines operating from July 5 until the end of the month. The error — omitting CemAir — is regretted and has been corrected.

Both Comair — which operates Kulula and British Airways (BA) — and Lift airline announced that they will be suspending all scheduled flights for three weeks.

Kulula and BA flights are set to resume on July 30 “subject to regulations being eased and Covid-19 infection rates, particularly in Gauteng, being contained”, but Lift’s schedule is set to resume only on August 1.

FlySafair has opted to continue operating with a reduced schedule and Airlink has advised its customers that “even though leisure travel to Gauteng is not permitted, transiting through Gauteng to your final destination is permitted.”

Chief marketing officer Kirby Gordon told TimesLIVE, “We’ve had to make some changes to fit in with the 9pm curfew but the flights will still operate. “Businesses are still operating and people still need to get to funerals and the like, so there can’t be a complete suspension of domestic flights.”

The airline is offering penalty-free changes and full refunds to passengers’ FlySafair wallets for those who wish to cancel pre-booked flights — on all routes.

Lift has advised its customers with bookings during the suspension period to change or cancel them via their online “Manage my Booking” facility, without any penalty fees.

“You can rebook to fly before or on July 4 or rebook to fly from August 1 onwards. No penalty fees will apply for cancellations or flight changes‚ but a difference in fare may apply to flight changes.”

Lift co-founder and CEO Jonathan Ayache said the decision to cancel the remainder of July’s flights was not taken easily.

“And we never left our affected passengers on their own — all those who still wanted to fly on their chosen dates have been accommodated on another airline.”

In the week leading up to President Cyril Ramaphosa's announcement, the airline was getting thousands more cancellations that it had expected, Ayache said.

Legally, when an airline is unable to honour booked and paid-for flights — as opposed to passengers choosing not to fly — they are obliged to issue full refunds. But, in keeping with the global airline trend, none of the airlines which have cancelled their July flights are offering refunds.

“About 99% of our passengers are happy with re-accommodation or have just shifted their travel dates, Ayache said. “In rare cases where those options are not possible, we’ve refunded.”

Kulula also asked its affected passengers to make booking changes online, saying they will be able to use their ticket within 12 months from the first date of travel, without any penalty.

But many Kulula ticket holders are demanding refunds.

On Friday evening, Geoff Sibbett tweeted: “We are still allowed to travel for business. Why suspend flights? And why accept my booking today? I am supposed to fly to Joburg on July 6; I made the booking today which you accepted, and then a few hours later you suspend all flights? This will be the last time I use Kulula.”

Responding, the airline said it had made the decision on Friday.

The restrictions will be reviewed on July 11.


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