The Washington Diplomat / August 2005
By Larry Luxner
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — For years, Ethiopian Airways has billed itself as the only airline offering direct service between Washington and the African continent.
Those claims will now have to be toned down. On July 2, South African Airways began offering four direct flights a week from Washington Dulles to Johannesburg. This makes Washington SAA' s third U.S. gateway after New York and Atlanta, and boosts the airlines frequency from the United States to South Africa to 18 flights a week.
"We see a big potential for this route," said Phillip J. Bekker, SAA's executive vice-president for the Americas. "We're looking at markets like foreign embassies, the IMF, the World Bank, various NGOs and U.S. government traffic, because at present, these people have to fly via Europe to get there."
Bekker, interviewed at SAA's North American headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said "we believe Ethiopian is a good airline and has been existence for many years, but they feed a different part of Africa. We feed sub-Saharan Africa as far north as Nairobi."
SAA's new Flight 208 will operate from Washington Dulles on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, departing 8:45 a.m., arriving 7:40 the following morning with a refueling stop in Accra, Ghana. On the return, Flight 207 will leave Johannesburg on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, departing at 6:40 p.m., stopping briefly in Accra and arriving 6:45 the next morning
The Washington-Johannesburg flight marks the return of Boeing 747-400 aircraft to SAA's fleet, as well as the return of three-class service, including a lie-flat seat in both business and first class. SAA uses Airbus A340 jets on its New York and Atlanta flights.
To inaugurate the new service, SAA threw a big party Jun. 29 at the Library of Congress. The event was held in conjunction with the Embassy of South Africa, which Bekker says has been "100% involved" in the effort. SAA will also open a three-person sales office in downtown Washington to help promote its new route.
"We would like to have at least 40% business travel out of Washington. Normally it's 30%," he said. "We're also picking up passengers between Ghana and South Africa, which is a lucrative route. We don't have the rights yet to offer services between Ghana and the United States, which we would only get if the Ghanian government agrees to it."
To spark interest in the Dulles-to-Johannesburg route, SAA plans to offer an introductory fare of $807 round-trip, including taxes, at least through July and August (the regular round-trip business fare is about $7,200).
If the four-flights-a-week route is successful, the airline will add another three flights and make it a daily service. SAA is also in the process of becoming part of the Star Alliance, meaning passengers on United Airlines, Varig Brazilian Airlines and other carriers in the worldwide alliance will accrue frequent-flier mileage when they fly SAA.
Bekker, originally from the South African mining town of Kimberley, has been with SAA for the past 35 years; he's held his current job since 1997. For much of his career, South Africa was blacklisted by the rest of the world because of its apartheid policies.
"Because of the international sanctions, we had to stop serving New York. I had to come and close down our office there. It was quite emotional," Bekker said. "But things changed after the new democratic government came into power. We now have 70 airlines flying to South Africa."
He said that despite financial problems associated with a jump in fuel prices, SAA has managed to achieve annual sales of $2.5 billion. U.S. operations are considered extremely lucrative and account for 12% of all revenues.
One of SAA's most profitable flights is New York-Dakar, a daily nonstop service that has proven very popular with business travelers needing to get to West Africa quickly. All told, SAA serves 20 destinations within South Africa and another 20 throughout the continent. Average load factor is "in the 80s," said Bekker, who for competitive reasons declined to be more specific.
"With the cost-saving measures we've implemented, this company is on a very positive track," he said, noting that the airline hopes to save about $250 million this year. Until recently, Swissair had owned 20% of SAA, but since the demise of that airline, South African Airways has been 100% owned by the South African government.
"We haven't expanded our services to the States since 1999," said Bekker. "Initially, we had flights only to New York. Then we opened flights to Miami and began twice-a-day flights to and from both cities. We terminated Miami operations in 2000, moving them to Atlanta. For a time, we flew between Cape Town, Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta, but after 9/11 – because of security issues — we couldn't deplane people anymore in Fort Lauderdale."
Nevertheless, SAA has kept its U.S. headquarters in that city, mainly because office space is cheaper than in New York, and because of lucrative tax breaks offered by the State of Florida and municipal officials. The airline employs 85 reservation agents and others at its spacious operations on the 16th floor of a bank building in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
In addition to pushing tourism to South Africa itself — everything from safaris to wine tours — SAA is also trying to promote nearby countries on its route map. These include Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia.
SAA has also begun offering direct service between Johannesburg and Livingstone, Zambia's gateway to Victoria Falls, one of Africa's premier tourist destinations.