Just getting to South Africa is apt to be a top concern for clients who are considering a South Africa vacation. It is a long haul – at least 15 hours. But the reality is that flying to South Africa is no more complicated than flying to Europe, and no more lengthy than flying to Asia.
Travelers are catching on. “We are seeing greater demand every year,” said Simon Bradley, vice president of marketing, Virgin Atlantic.
Virgin Atlantic is the fourth largest carrier flying between the U.S. and South Africa. The top three are South African Airways, Delta, and Emirates; British Airways is fifth in the market.
World Cup bump
Total U.S. arrivals to South Africa topped 314,000 in 2010, according to Todd Neumann, South African Airways’ executive vice president, North America. The 2010 number includes a significant bump from attendance at the FIFA World Cup.
The world sporting event boosted traffic for all carriers flying into to South Africa. For instance, Emirates saw a 20% jump in inbound traffic to South Africa last year, according to sales vice president Michael Page.
Even without that bump, the U.S. market has been growing a steady 10% to 11% annually for years.
“The total air market from the U.S. to South Africa is worth about $300 million. Around 160,000 passengers fly from the U.S. to South Africa via London each year. It’s a significant market,” Bradley said.
The nonstop advantage
South African Airways (SAA) carries about 40% of the total U.S. market, Neumann said. The flag carrier also has the most nonstop and direct capacity out of the U.S.
SAA’s service includes: a daily nonstop between JFK and Johannesburg and daily direct service between Washington Dulles and Johannesburg via Dakar, Senegal.
Delta has the only other nonstop service, daily between Atlanta and Johannesburg.
“Nonstop service is quite significant,” Neumann said. “Total flight time southbound [from the U.S.] is about 15 hours 15 minutes and northbound about 16 hours.
“That not only provides a more convenient schedule for people traveling from New York, but more convenient scheduling behind New York for passengers originating in other cities. Using our partner carriers, you can make a single connection over New York and then fly nonstop in and out of South Africa.”
Connecting through London, Dubai and other hubs does pose time challenges. But the upside is increased choice in carriers, connections and timing.
U.S-Europe flights typically depart in the evening to arrive in Europe the next morning. Connections to South Africa typically depart in the afternoon or evening to arrive the next morning.
Flying via Dubai can mean as much as a 19-hour layover, when flying in from, say, San Francisco. Even so, Emirates, which serves South Africa via Dubai, is the third-largest carrier from the U.S.
Emirates has U.S. gateways in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, New York and Toronto. Connecting service is through Dubai – three daily flights to Johannesburg, two daily to Cape Town and one daily to Durban.
Quite a few carriers serve the U.S. market to South Africa, connecting via their home hubs. They include: Air France, EgyptAir, El Al, Ethiopian Airlines, Iberia, Jet Airways, Kenya Airways, KLM, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Etihad, Singapore Airlines, Swiss, TAP, Thai Airways, and Turkish Airlines.
“Nonstop capacity from the U.S. to South Africa is limited. What we’re seeing is that going by London and other hubs is becoming increasingly important in this market,” said Virgin Atlantic’s Bradley.
“Consumers go with what suits them best. We tend to attract people who want that distinct Virgin Atlantic experience.”
The ability to use or earn frequent flyer miles also affects travelers’ carrier selection.
South African Airways has the largest air network in South Africa and within Africa, either under its own brand or its South African Express Airways and South African Air Link partners.
South African Airways is also a Star Alliance member, so clients with United, Continental and other Star Alliance frequent flyer accounts can earn miles for their travel within Africa if they fly SAA (or a partner code share) on the transatlantic leg, Neumann said.
Service from non-gateway cities
Code shares and airline partnerships play a key role in air travel to South Africa, since there are only three direct gateways from the U.S.– New York, Washington D.C., and Atlanta – but many other important U.S. markets.
SAA code shares some 30 cities with United to feed flights out of Washington and New York. SAA code shares another 18 cities with Jet Blue, feeding into JFK and Dulles. Virgin Atlantic feeds traffic into its London hub from all of its U.S. gateways.
Key U.S. markets for South Africa outside of nonstop gateway cities include: Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Seattle, according to South Africa Tourism. SAA’s Neumann added Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Boston, San Francisco and Dallas to the list.
Good value: air-inclusive packages
Agents can allay client concerns about price by highlighting the value of air-inclusive packages. “A vacation, even a luxury vacation, is very economical in South Africa, which is certainly not the case for Europe,” Neumann said.
“The North American traveler can travel out of New York or Washington in economy class, with hotel accommodations at a five-star property in Cape Town, as well as a two- to three-night safari at a five star game lodge, for $2,600 to $2,700.
“When you compare that to products that might be available even in the Caribbean, consumers are getting quite a value.”
Load factors to South Africa are strong, airline executives said, in part because of the nature of the U.S. market.
“One thing we see in the U.S. leisure market is adventurousness,” Bradley said. “Americans are looking for experiences, not just ticking big, iconic destinations off some list. South Africa is very well-placed to provide that amazing, unique experience that people crave today.”
South Africa is on travelers’ radar for the experience value, Neumann noted. Financial value is also driving visitor traffic.