SA’s CemAir eyes African expansion – with flights to Tanzania, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Mauritius

  • Local airline CemAir is known for flying to tourist hotspots like Plettenberg Bay and Margate in small aircraft.
  • But since the demise of and local British Airways flights, CemAir has dramatically upped its capacity and is becoming a bigger name on some of South Africa’s busiest routes.
  • It’s also looking to expand into the rest of Africa, with flights to the DRC, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Mauritius on the cards.

South Africa’s privately owned CemAir airline is looking to expand its regional operations by introducing several new routes on the continent.

The global aviation industry is slowly recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, which, with its travel restrictions and border closures, cost airlines more than $200 billion. South African carriers weren’t spared.

The troubled South African Airways (SAA) was grounded during its business rescue process throughout much of the pandemic, only returning to the sky, as a much leaner operation, in September 2021. Mango Airlines hasn’t flown in more than a year, while already beleaguered South African Express, which grounded flights at the onset of the pandemic, was placed in final liquidation earlier in September.

The biggest loss to South Africa’s aviation sector came in June when and local British Airways operator Comair grounded all commercial flights and was placed in provisional liquidation. This cut around 40% of the country’s domestic seat capacity overnight, resulting in demand suddenly outstripping supply.

But one local carrier was expecting a post-lockdown upset in South African aviation and had already begun to acquire more aircraft to plug the gap, which would ultimately be left by Comair’s demise.

CemAir, which is headquartered at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport, increased its fleet size by more than 20% in the first half of the year.

The airline, best known for its flights to smaller towns like the popular tourist spot of Plettenberg Bay and the iron ore mining hub of Sishen, is also looking beyond South Africa’s borders.

“That’s where we see a lot of our capacity going moving forward,” CemAir CEO, Miles van der Molen, told Business Insider SA of the airline’s expansion into the rest of Africa.

“We’re continually adding capacity [and] we’re growing quite quickly. Some of that capacity is deployed domestically, but we see that the domestic market, in time, when it fully recovers, will mostly need larger equipment [aircraft] for efficiencies and economies of scale… but the regional routes tend to be thin by nature, and the smaller aircraft we operate are practically the correct gauge for those routes.”

CemAir’s expansion plans were revealed in a government gazette published on 23 September. The department of transport noted applications for new flight paths to be heard by the International Air Services Council (IASC). This Council was only recently reconvened after being vacant for a year and is now dealing with a massive backlog of applications by airlines.

Some of these applications, said Van der Molen, were initially lodged almost two years ago, with the publication of these routes only recently being gazetted.

CemAir’s operations outside of South Africa are currently limited to Luanda in Angola and Lusaka in Zambia. The airline also services Gaborone and Maputo through codeshare agreements with other carriers.

New routes being heard by the IASC include flights from Johannesburg to Kinshasa and Lubumbashi in the DRC, Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Windhoek in Namibia, and Mauritius.

CemAir is also hoping to add four flights to Mozambique. This includes Johannesburg to Pemba and Vilanculos, Cape Town to Maputo, and Durban to Maputo.

The airline is looking to operate seven flights a week to most of the destinations, except for Windhoek, which CemAir wants to service 14 times a week.

It’s unclear when these new routes will become operational, with the IASC hearing and deliberation just one step of many in the process of getting passengers in the sky. The longest of these processes is the diplomatic one, whereby governments of the countries the airline is flying need to greenlight the route.

“Then we’re completely in the hands of these government departments, and although we can follow-up, we have no direct access to those people, and it will be a mixed bag,” explained Van der Molen.

“The quick countries, the fastest we’ve seen that done was about five months, and the slowest is still ongoing at five years. So, as soon as we have all the bits of paper in place, we would start flying without any real delay… but the diplomatic process is slow and unpredictable.”