AIR fares for flights between Zimbabwe and South Africa — mainly the Harare-Johannesburg and Bulawayo-Johannesburg routes — have shot up dramatically during the festive season (Christmas and New Year holidays), with some airlines now charging an extortionate US$1 003 for a return booking from the capital for a one-hour-30 minutes trip.
A one-way trip on that route costs as much as US$570, which is too exorbitant. This has disrupted travellers’ holiday plans and family or friends’ reunions.
The airlines operating those busy routes include Airlink, Fastjet, South African Airways and Safair. Air Zimbabwe and British Airways (Comair) are no longer in operation.
The average fare for a flight between Harare and Johannesburg, which is an hour-and-a-half long, is about US$350, but prices have doubled or even trebled in some cases.
The current fares being charged are more or less equivalent to the price of a return ticket from Harare to Dubai. For instance, a Kenya Airways flight from Harare to Dubai costs US$766; Ethiopian Airways (US$867) and Emirates US$1 004.
The current situation makes it hard for travellers to pursue their plans during the holidays or travel for other reasons. The prices are so fickle and high due to consistent lack of competition and unreasonable airport charges, fees and levies.
The cost of intra-Africa travel has been a subject of intense debate in recent years, with hospitality experts, tourism professionals and airline executives, saying it is holding back the immense potential of African tourism industry. Airlink chief executive Rodger Foster says there are valid reasons for the high costs of intra-African air travel.
These include taxes, statutory charges and levies, the high costs of jet fuel, airport taxes, air navigation, weather services and ground handling fees in many countries in Africa.
“The operational cost structure for regional travel differs significantly compared to South African domestic travel, which is commoditised, especially on trunk routes,” Foster told Travel Weekly.
Kirby Gordon, head of sales and distribution at South African low-cost airline FlySafair, says demand and passenger numbers on many intra-Africa routes are relatively low. This usually means the route needs to be served by a smaller gauge of aircraft.
“The issue then is that you don’t get the economies of scale and efficiencies of jets, which does mean higher prices.” David Frost, Satsa chief executive, says inadequate airline competition in Africa directly affects ticket pricing.
“The aviation industry has faced setbacks, largely attributed to the [Covid-19] pandemic, resulting in the exit of several airlines and limited choices for passengers,”
Frost said. “It is crucial to foster competition on routes which provide access to popular and sought-after accommodations and lodges. Often these routes rely on private charter flights or smaller aircraft, driving up operational costs and resulting in higher airfares which hit the passenger’s pocket.”
Gordon told Travel Weekly: “Destinations like Mauritius, Zanzibar, the Victoria Falls, the Okavango Delta and the Masai Mara tend to be quite well served by big international carriers. It’s the connections to some of the less tourism-established centres that seems to be a little trickier to grow.
“It’s that proverbial chicken and egg issue, though: No connectivity means no tourists, but no tourism demand means the route holds no appeal to airlines.”
Several regional airlines, including FlySafair, South Africa’s CemAir and Proflight Zambia, recently expanded their regional networks.
These have been welcomed by local tour operators who say it will help position Africa as an attractive destination for the more budget-conscious three- and four-star travellers.
“From my perspective, the introduction of a low-cost carrier into Maputo is fantastic news. Since the demise of 1Time Airlines, we have been beholden to the exorbitant costs of flights on Airlink and LAM,” Natalie Tenzer-Silva, director of Dana Tours, an inbound operator in Mozambique, told Travel weekly.
“With the start of FlySafair, we see an almost 50% reduction in airfares, and we are hoping to attract much of the leisure market because of this.”
Sean Kritzinger, owner of Giltedge Travel, said the introduction of more regional routes will help speed up the recovery of the three-star market.
“At the moment, the very high pricing means that only your top-end luxury travellers from markets like the US can afford the air tickets,” he said.
“If we start to see lower airfares, that will get the three- and four-star travellers travelling, as well.” Affordable intra-African flights will ultimately contribute to Africa’s competitiveness in the global tourism market, solidifying its standing on the global stage, according to Frost.
“We know that international travellers are inclined to extend their stays in Africa, given the distance they must travel. International guests are also more likely to book combo travel itineraries that cover multiple destinations. Retaining our competitive edge hinges on bolstering air capacity.”
As the BBC recently reported, flying from Berlin, the capital of Germany, to Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, might cost around US$150 for a direct flight lasting under three hours.
However, travelling a similar distance between Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, could cost between US$500 and US$850, often involving at least one layover and taking as much as 20 hours.