In an odd turn of events, it turns out Delta Airlines will not begin its triangle service between Atlanta, Johannesburg, and Cape Town because the South African government will not let it.
South Africa Blocks Delta Air Lines From Operating Triangle Service
At 8,439 miles, Delta’s Atlantic – Johannesburg service was one of the longest flights in the world. When Delta retired its fleet of Boeing 777-200LR aircraft, it was not left with an aircraft capable of continuing that service, at least on the return journey with headwinds and a plane full of cargo and passengers.
But Delta came up with a plan to operate a triangle route from:
- Atlanta – Johannesburg
- Johannesburg – Cape Town
- Cape Town – Atlanta
The lower altitude and shorter distance between Cape Town and Atlanta made the long haul route more commercially feasible.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But as international travel rebounds as borders re-open, Delta made the unexpected announcement last week that it would not fly to Cape Town. Instead, it shared that it had worked out the technical limitations and would fly nonstop to J’Berg and back. As Delta described the decision in a regulatory filing:
As a result of commercial, operational, and market developments making it feasible for Delta to operate a direct return routing of Atlanta-Johannesburg-Atlanta using 306-seat Airbus A350-900 aircraft, Delta no longer plans to operate the the triangle routing of Atlanta-Johannesburg-Cape Town-Atlanta.
The new nonstop service will begin on August 1, 2021 barring any unforeseen pandemic-related delays.
Did the Airbus A350-900 suddenly gain a longer range? Not to our knowledge. Turns out the South African government blocked Delta from operating its proposed triangle route. No reason was given for the denial. The news was revealed in an order from the US Department of Transportation (DOT):
In April 2021, Delta Air Lines, Inc. informed the Department of its unsuccessful attempts to secure approval from the South Africa Department of Transportation to amend its Foreign Operator’s Permit to allow a stop in Cape Town on the return segment of its Atlanta-Johannesburg service.
Delta first applied to the SADOT for the Johannesburg-Cape Town coterminalization authority in May 2020. There followed months of repeated requests by the carrier to secure its authority and further outreach by the US Government in support of Delta’s application, which is consistent with the rights under the Agreement, which in fact allows for coterminalized services by carriers of both countries.
However, on May 14, 2021, the SADOT informed the Department of its view that the Agreement “does not confer domestic coterminalization rights for designated airlines of both countries,” and that it intended to deny Delta’s application.
The DOT has responded by blocking South African Airways from operating similar so-called “coterminal” (multi-stop) flights within the United States.
While our preference would be to grant SAA renewal of all of the bilaterally-authorized exemption authority it seeks, the SADOT has taken the position that the coterminalization authority sought by Delta is not provided for in the Agreement.
We strongly disagree with that position, but our attempts to engage with the SADOT in order to reconcile this matter and vindicate the important US bilateral right at issue have not succeeded.
Therefore, in the circumstances presented, we have tentatively decided that the public interest calls for denial of the portions of SAA’s exemption renewal request. this, we are proposing to do no more than limit SAA’s authority per its own government’s unilateral reinterpretation of the Agreement.
The reciprocal move is theoretical punishment, as South African Airways currently does not serve the USA.
Delta will not add Cape Town service after all, instead simply operating a round-trip between Atlanta and Johannesburg. However, the reason appears to be less “commercial, operational, and market developments” and more specifically that South Africa would not allow the proposed trinagle route. The USA has responded by blocking South African Airways from (theoretically) operating similar routes in the United States.