Delta’s most anticipated long-haul route hit a major legal snag

Jun 22, 2021

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Delta Air Lines won’t be flying to Cape Town after all — and it’s not necessarily by choice.

At the height of the pandemic, the Atlanta-based carrier unveiled plans to serve both Johannesburg and Cape Town with a triangle route. The flight would leave Atlanta and fly nonstop to Johannesburg before continuing on to Cape Town and then returning to Atlanta.

For Delta flyers, it’d open up a new market in one of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations. Though Delta has long flown to Johannesburg, Cape Town hasn’t been served by Delta since 2009 when it operated a tag flight in conjunction with onward service to Dakar, Senegal.

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The move would also solve a logistical challenge for Delta. During to the pandemic, the airline retired its Boeing 777 fleet, paving the way for the Airbus A350 to become the carrier’s flagship jet. But, unlike the 777, the A350 can’t operate the return to ATL from JNB at maximum payload due to the airport’s high elevation.

While the Cape Town stop seemed to be a win-win for the airline and its travelers, it wasn’t a win for the South Africa government.

In a Department of Transportation order responding to South African Airways first reported by Seth Miller, the agency noted that South Africa repeatedly denied Delta’s request to serve Cape Town with the triangle flight.

Following “months of repeated requests by the carrier to secure its authority and further outreach by the U.S. Government in support of Delta’s application,” the request was ultimately denied, squashing Delta’s Cape Town ambitions.

Now, the carrier will fly the 8,439-mile Atlanta to Johannesburg flight as a round-trip, with nonstop service taking off on Aug. 1, representing the route’s sixth delay since being announced.

To compensate for the degraded takeoff performance from Johannesburg’s 5,500-foot-high airport, the carrier confirmed to TPG that it’ll deploy one of its three newest Airbus A350 jets, which have an upgraded 280-ton maximum takeoff weight.

These performance enhancements should help Delta operate the flight nonstop without needing to block seats or carry less cargo.

Though Delta’s currently blocked from serving Cape Town with the triangle flight, it’s possible that the South African government could reconsider. As retribution for denying Delta rights to serve Cape Town, the DOT is blocking flag carrier South African Airways the “permit to serve Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. on a co-terminal basis.”

While this tit-for-tat diplomacy might work in theory, the reality is that the DOT’s block is effectively toothless. South African Airways is under bankruptcy protection, and it didn’t operate any routes before the pandemic that would be impacted by this new ban.

Of course, if Delta really wanted to serve Cape Town, it could start a nonstop flight there that’d compete against United, which flies nonstop from the U.S. via its hub at Newark.

Unless things change, Delta flyers headed to Cape Town will need to connect in Johannesburg — or defect and fly United’s Newark nonstop.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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