Delta gets approval for South Africa triangle route, will launch Cape Town service

Apr 28, 2022

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Delta is finally getting its South Africa triangle route.

The Atlanta-based airline has tried for nearly two years to win approval from the South African government to operate an Atlanta (ATL)-Johannesburg (JNB)-Cape Town (CPT)-Atlanta service pattern on its Airbus A350. That approval finally came and service will launch later this year, a Delta spokesperson said.

“Delta is pleased that its application to operate its triangular route from Atlanta-Johannesburg-Cape Town-Atlanta has been approved,” the spokesperson said in a statement about the recent approval by regulators. “We look forward to extending our new routing to serve South Africa later this year and offering more choice of travel between the U.S. and South Africa.”

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Delta currently operates a nonstop flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg three times a week.

There are two big upsides for Delta to operate a triangle route.

First, Johannesburg’s airport, O.R. Tambo International, is over a mile high in elevation — 5,558 feet to be exact. Takeoff at that elevation stretches the abilities of Delta’s A350-900 on the 8,439-mile flight because jet engines have more powerful performance at the higher atmospheric pressure found closer to sea level. On certain days this past Southern Hemisphere summer, Delta’s nonstop to Atlanta sometimes required a technical stop in Boston (BOS) due to performance limitations. Cape Town, on the other hand, is only 151 feet above sea level, which will allow Delta to maximize payload and fuel for the return trip to Atlanta without having to make any stops.

(Map courtesy of Cirium)

From a logistical standpoint, this also gives Delta inexpensive access to Cape Town for the first time, allowing both cities to be served with a single aircraft. With Cape Town being a tourist-heavy market, Delta’s bet is that its leisure-focused passengers won’t mind a brief stop in Johannesburg.

But, there’s more to the story.

More: Delta Air Lines again applies for authority to operate Cape Town flights

Even though Delta will serve Cape Town via its triangle routing, the airline is also pursuing approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation to operate a separate South Africa flight — an Atlanta-Cape Town nonstop. The Delta spokesperson confirmed that the triangle route’s approval does not change the carrier’s plans for this.

For its proposed Cape Town nonstop, Delta faces competition from United for the remaining South Africa “slots” that are available under the bilateral air service agreement between the two countries. United hopes to launch service to Cape Town from its hub at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD). It is up to the DOT to decide which carrier wins this route authority.

South Africa has become a big market for U.S. airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the struggles and subsequent retrenchment of South African Airways. Prior to the pandemic, the Star Alliance carrier served New York’s John. F Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Dulles. Now, the much-diminished carrier doesn’t serve any destination outside of Africa. Delta and United — which, in addition to its Cape Town proposal also operates service to Johannesburg and Cape Town from its Newark (EWR) hub — likely see opportunity and demand for the market as travel rebounds.

Featured photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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