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Surprise: Delta and United both win the right to fly to Cape Town

July 14, 2022
4 min read
United and Delta planes
Surprise: Delta and United both win the right to fly to Cape Town
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Both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines will be able to launch their proposed services to Cape Town, South Africa.

A fiercely-contested route battle between the airlines ended in a surprise draw: The U.S. Department of Transportation revealed on Thursday that it had worked with South African authorities to obtain approval for both airlines to operate their desired service.

Delta will run a nonstop flight three times a week between its hub at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) and Cape Town International Airport (CPT). Flights will start on or around Nov. 17, using the airline's flagship Airbus A350-900.

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Delta currently operates flights between Atlanta and Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport (JNB). Later this year, the carrier plans to add the Cape Town stop after the flight departs Johannesburg — completing the so-called "triangle route" that the carrier has been seeking for years. Earlier this year, a Delta spokesperson told TPG that the carrier plans to run both the triangle route and the Cape Town nonstop route, should the nonstop be approved.

United will operate a nonstop flight three times a week between its hub at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Cape Town, starting on or around Nov. 17; the flight will use a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

The airline currently operates nonstop routes from its other East Coast hub at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to both Johannesburg and Cape Town.

In a statement, United said it was grateful for the DOT's action.

"We extend our sincere gratitude to the Department of Transportation, as well as the numerous government and community leaders, airports, customers and employees who supported this application, for recognizing the tremendous benefits to tourism, commerce, and diplomacy that a direct link between Cape Town and Washington, D.C. provides,” United President Brett Hart said. "United has steadily grown its flight offerings to South Africa and across the continent. These new direct flights will promote competition and provide affordable and consistent service to Africa for U.S. travelers.”

Delta said it looked forward to commencing its service.

"Delta is pleased that its application has been tentatively approved to operate direct service from Atlanta-Cape Town," the airline said in a statement. "We hope to provide our customers with more choice of travel between the U.S. and South Africa later this year."

The standoff between the two airlines was spurred by the bilateral air service agreement between the U.S. and South Africa, which dates back to 1996. While the U.S. has "open skies" agreements with much of the world — which generally allow for unlimited frequencies between two countries — the U.S. and South Africa still have a more limited agreement in place. The agreement allows U.S. carriers to operate up to 21 trips per week between the two countries. Currently, United operates 10 of those round-trip journeys, while Delta operates seven — leaving four more round trips to be assigned.

Delta (red) and United (blue) service to South Africa following Cape Town route award and Delta commencing the so-called "triangle route." (Screenshot from Cirium)

The route proceeding got ugly as the carriers insulted each other in the normally quiet dockets of the DOT. United attacked Delta for retiring its fleet of Boeing 777-200LRs, while Delta bragged that its A350-900 was a better aircraft for the mission than United's 787s.

More: Why Delta and United are both fighting to serve Cape Town

Delta and United both asked for three round trips each — a move that would've put the U.S. two frequencies over its allotment. So, the DOT just asked South Africa for the U.S. carriers to operate 23, instead of 21 frequencies per week. South Africa agreed to it.

While the development is not technically finalized yet, only procedural steps remain. The carriers still need to receive formal approval from South African authorities, and the U.S. DOT has to publish a final order to permit the service, though objections seem unlikely.

Assuming the approvals are granted, both carriers must start service within 90 days of Nov. 17.

Featured image by (Photo by The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
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