As the global aviation industry looks to rebound from the devastating effect of the pandemic with various measures being put in place to encourage air travel, South African carriers are jostling to secure a sizeable chunk of the aviation market in the country.
According to buzzsouthafrica.com, most successful airlines in South Africa are either founded by the government or started as the subsidiary of a bigger company that is already thriving.
According to buzzsouthafrica.com, One reason for the above-stated fact is that floating a successful airline business requires a huge capital investment. However, beyond having loads of cash to get the best types of equipment and fleets of aircraft, having the best hands – technical, operational, and managerial staff – to handle the different aspects of work helps make the venture successful.
Governments and large successful conglomerates can boast of having the human capital, hence the reason for their – almost guaranteed – success. The truth is most airlines that have kicked off based on the financial muscles of the owners without due consideration of the latter element – knowledgeable and experienced staff – have packed up almost as soon as they begin operations.
Today, despite the demands and intricacies involved in starting and managing an airline, several airlines operating in South Africa are making the competition for customers fierce and the market difficult for smaller airlines that are just starting to thrive. While this is not a good situation for upcoming airlines, the competition among the bigger airlines guarantees that customers would always get the best service from these airlines.
This is to say that the bigger airlines’ efforts to woo air transport users to their airlines would see them invest more in customer service while keeping their prices as low as possible. Therefore, customers have a long list of airlines to choose from – and would always go for the one that best tickles their fancy.
There Are 21 Active And Operational Airlines In South Africa
The airline industry in South Africa is diversified but yet very competitive. The diversity entails that not all operating airline companies in the country are passenger airlines. While some airlines are strictly in the business of carrying passengers from one location to another, some are focused on carrying cargo only. The rest are in the business of leasing aircraft to high-class personnel, businesses, groups for the movement of persons or goods. And in each category, the competition is fierce because almost all are top-notch in-flight and customer service.
The 21 airlines in South Africa operate in different destinations and routes, which means that the airline you decide to travel with should depend on where you are going to and whether or not that airline lands there. Some of the airlines in South Africa, especially most newer companies, only have domestic flight licenses, which means they can only operate within South Africa and not travel to international destinations. However, some have grown to the point where they take passengers and even goods to other countries.
Detailed List Of All The Airlines In South Africa And What You Need To Know About Them
Some factors could earn an airline the tag of being a ‘big airline company.’ These factors are accumulative, and they include their customer service, number of aircraft they operate, their management, the type of aircraft they use, the quality of maintenance, and so many other factors. When traveling with any airline, you should be able to know the quality of service they offer.
1. LIFT Airline
• Launch Year: 2020
LIFT Airlines is one of the newest airlines in South Africa. It was founded in October 2020 and began operation in December that same year. The airline has come on board with a mission of becoming the most customer-obsessed airline in South Africa.
In following their mission statement, the management of the airlines decided to engage their prospective customers, getting them actively aware and involved in the process of launching the company. They did this by opening up their channels and asking the public to suggest a name for the new airline via a social media campaign.
With over 250,000 suggested names entries, the management of the new airline settled for the name ‘Lift,’ which was suggested by 8 participants in the campaign. As an appreciation for their suggestion, the airline announced they would be giving the winners free flight tickets for an entire year. Also, their names were inscribed on the body of the first ‘Lift’ aircraft that took off in December 2020.
The airline is keen on making customers very much involved in their everyday running. Their cabin crew wears attires made by Superbalist, an online South African fashion retailer, and the in-flight service snacks are made by Vida e Caffe.
Lift Airlines is a joint venture between former Uber executive Jonathan Ayache, Global Airways, a local aircraft leasing company, and Gidon Novick, the former CEO of Kulula.com.
The airline currently has three Airbus A320-200 that make up their fleet and have three destinations which include:
• Johannesburg (O. R. Tambo International Airport)
• Cape Town (Cape Town International Airport)
• George, Western Cape (George Airport)
2. Cobra Aviation
• Launch Year: 2018
Cobra Aviation is one of the few airlines in South Africa owned by a woman. It is involved in both passengers and cargo movement within South Africa and across other African Countries. They provide a wide range of aviation services like aircraft ground handling, aircraft refueling, aircraft charter, landing permits, baggage handling, cargo charter, VIP facilitation, and protection through customs and immigration.
The airline is managed by a team of experts that understands the vision and mission of Cobra Aviation. Like every other airline in South Africa and the world at large, they have also been hit with the economic effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the co-founder and chairman, Javed Malik, called on other aviation companies in South Africa to come together and support each other to help the aviation industry win this fight against COVID-19 instead of competing against each other.
• Launch Year: 2013
FlySafair is one of the leading low-cost airlines in South Africa. The airline was established in August 2013 as a subsidiary of Safair Group. After receiving approval from the South African Air Service Licensing Council (ASLC) and making relevant preparations to officially launch in October 2013, FlySafair was served a court order that directed that they halted any plans to begin operations due to an appeal made by Comair.
Comair has appealed to a South African court to prevent FlySafair from launching operations because it failed to meet the legal requirements of having at least 75% local ownership. It would not come as a surprise that this had happened because Comair is the parent company of Kulula.com, a low-cost airline that FlySafair was about to compete with upon their launch.
To meet the legal requirements, FlySafair had an ownership and board restructuring, and on the 16th of October 2014, about a year after the previously proposed launch date, FlySafair launched its inaugural flight. Currently, the airline has a fleet size of 18.
FlySafair lands or takes off at 7 different locations in South Africa, which include:
FlySafair has also been hit financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have managed to stay on top of their game as they did not have to suspend flights like other airlines. However, they have had to schedule some flights.
4. Angel Gabriel Aeronautics
• Launch Year: 2008
Angel Gabriel Aeronautics is a premier class charter airline launched in 2008. This means that they offer only luxury services to top-class individuals only. They offer services like flying safaris, air taxis, and aircraft charter.
Their major focus includes giving high-class clients the luxury they long for by providing facilities like expert baggage handling, VIP transit, Lounges, and Chauffeur transfer services. Their headquarters is located at Johannesburg Grand Central Airport, a small airport in Midrand.
Angel Gabriel Aeronautics follows the following routes:
They were also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and have decided to compensate affected travelers with a travel voucher that allows them to reschedule their flight to any date from now to April 2022.
5. Allegiant Air
Allegiant Air is a privately owned charter airline that has its headquarters located in Lanseria, South Africa. Initially, the airline started as a chartered broker, but in 2008, they went on to own their own aircraft operations. The airline currently has one of the smallest fleet sizes with just two airplanes compared to other South African airlines. Very little is known about Allegiant Air because they do not have a very active online presence.
6. Africa Charter Airline
• Launch Year: 2008
Africa Charter Airline is a South African airline leasing out airplanes on charter for group passengers numbering between 10 and 350 persons. They also handle cargo; however, their major focus is on tourism. They currently have a fleet that consists of different models of Boeing B727s aircraft.
Africa Charter Airline has its headquarters located at O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. They carry passengers and cargo across countries in Africa and also to destinations like Indian Ocean islands.
7. Comair Flight Services
• Launch Year: 2007
Comair Flight Services (CFS) was originally launched in 2007 with the name Corporate Flight Services. However, after its acquisition by Comair General Aviation Holdings, the name was changed to what we now know today – even though the company retained its initials (CFS) after the acquisition and rebranding.
The business aviation company is currently a licensed non-scheduled air service (charter) operator and holds a globally recognized Air Operator Certificate from South African Civil Aviation Authority and a license for domestic and international travels.
Comair Flight Services provides a wide range of services which includes: aircraft management, aircraft sales, trip support, safari air charter services, among others. They currently have a large fleet size that comprises 21 aircraft.
8. Mango Airlines
• Launch Year: 2006
Mango Airlines is a South African low-cost airline owned by South African Airlines (SAA), which means that the government indirectly owns it. The low-cost airline was officially launched on the 30th of October 2006, and by midnight, tickets for the first flight, which took off on the 15th of November 2006, were already on sale.
The headquarters of this SAA-owned airline is located at O. R. Tambo International Airport in Kempton Park, Ekurhuleni, Gauteng. In 2016, Mango planned to become a connecting partner with Star Alliance, but due to financial constraints affecting the parent company SAA, the partnership has been put on hold.
Mango Airlines currently has a fleet that consists of 14 Boeing 737-800 aircraft that land and take off at seven South African destinations, including one international destination – Zanzibar International Airport, Tanzania.
The local destinations include:
On the 28th of April 2021, Mango Airlines was grounded by the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) due to non-payments and debt to ACSA. So currently, no Mango aircraft are allowed to land or take off in any airport under ACSA. According to the South African Customer Satisfaction Index by Consulta, Mango Airlines scored 74 out of 100 points, which means that customers appreciate their service.
• Launch Year: 2005
CemAir is a privately owned South African airline launched in 2005 with the main aim of using turboprop commuter aircraft. They are into the business of providing flight service to major tourist destinations and leasing out aircraft. The airline flies across several South African destinations like O. R. Tambo International Airport, Kimberley Airport, and Bloemfontein Airport. They also have international destinations – there are available flights to countries like Mali, Botswana, South Sudan, etc.
The airline has faced some challenges from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), but they have always managed to come out victorious. In January 2018, the CAA withdrew the Certificate of Airworthiness of 12 of their aircraft, alleging that CemAir had unqualified personnel. In December that same year, the airline was grounded following safety issues by the South African aviation authorities. They challenged the decision and took the matter to court, and in the end, the courts ruled on the matter, and CemAir got a favorable judgment.
• Launch Year: 2001
Kulula.com is the first South African ‘no-frills’ carrier and was established in 2001 as a subsidiary of its parent company, Comair. The aim of establishing Kulula.com as a low-cost airline was to make travel by air cheaper and also to make payments and the entire process of traveling more affordable to customers. In 2012, the airline announced it was purchasing seven new Boeing 737-800s to add to its fleet, increasing its fleet size to 10.
The Kulula airline company currently have six destinations in South Africa which include:
Due to the third wave of COVID-19 that hit South Africa in 2021, Kulula.com suspended all flights from the 5th of July to the 29th of July 2021. the airline company has a very active online presence and always tries to interact with its customers.
11. Global Aviation
• Launch Year: 2001
Global Aviation is a lease aviation company founded in 2001 with its headquarter based at O. R. Tambo International Airport. The major aim of the company is to provide aircraft on lease to airlines. To thrive in the industry, they developed a unique proposition of providing well-equipped, maintained, and fully crewed aircraft to airlines.
The aviation company also provides cabin crew training at all levels, flight crew, flight dispatchers, operational control, and base support staff to both local and international airlines. The company was known with the McDonnell Douglas fleet, but it was phased those out between 2010 and 2017. Currently, their fleet comprises the Airbus A320 and A340 aircraft.
While continuing with the original business idea for being a lease aviation company, the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the global aviation industry opened the company up to transporting passengers from one location to another. To make this possible, they have partnered with Lift Airlines. Currently, Global Aviation takes off and lands in several countries in Europe, South America, Africa, and the Caribbean.
12. Solenta Aviation
• Launch Year: 2000
Solenta Aviation is an airline located in Johannesburg, South Africa. They provide cargo services to different parts of South Africa and other African countries like Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique on behalf of DHL. They provide aircraft cargo, leasing, and charter services to industries like oil and gas, mining, etc. They also handle scheduled airlines, tourism, humanitarian aid, and airfreight.
Since the airline’s inception in 2000, Solenta Aviation has started up other subsidiaries like Solenta Aviation Côte d’Ivoire, Solenta Aviation Kenya Ltd, Solenta Aviation Zimbabwe, Solenta Aviation Mozambique, and Solenta Aviation Gabon (which was set up in 2006).
Solenta currently has a fleet size of 31, comprising 19 Beechcraft 1900D, 5 ATR 72-200F, Embraer ERJ 135LR, and two ATR 72-600, Embraer ERJ 145LR, and Embraer ERJ 145LU each. Solenta Aviation has a 4.0 review out of 5 stars on za.indeed.com from employees, making it a good and conductive place of work, so if the employees are satisfied, most likely the customers are as well.
13. Star Air Cargo
• Launch Year: 1996
Star Air Cargo is owned by Peter Annear and is located at Rivonia in Johannesburg, South Africa. The airline started its operations in 1996 as a courier airline that carries cargo for DHL Express and companies like FedEx. While operating as a cargo airline only, their fleet was made of small aircraft, but after a while, they decided to start carrying passengers while maintaining their cargo services division. This required that they purchase bigger aircraft like the Boeing 737, and in 2007 they were able to purchase their first 737-200 aircraft.
The aviation company also negotiates with aircraft leasing companies to lease out modern airbuses like the 737-300 and 737-400 aircraft to replace the 737-200 aircraft they bought in 2007. The major business model of Star Air is to lease aircraft in the short and medium-term. They have transacted business with both national airlines like Mango and international airlines, including Air Namibia, and Air Tanzania, to mention but a few.
Star Air has a subsidiary company called Star Air Maintenance Pty Ltd. This company provides aircraft maintenance for third parties. In June 2019, Star Air and its subsidiary company were acquired by Comair for $5.14 million. However, the acquisition deal was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic that affected airlines financially.
They are not active on social media, as they do not have an active Instagram account. From social media comments on some Star Air Cargo hashtag Instagram posts, you can tell that several customers and aviation lovers love them. Still, we noticed that they also get bad comments.
14. King Air Charter
• Launch Year: 1996
King Air Charter is a charter airline launched into operation in 1996. The airline has its headquarters at Lanseria, South Africa, with a fleet size of just McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 airplanes. The airline prides itself on providing first-class services to its customers, including international bodies like the United Nations (UN), which they have worked with to provide emergency relief items to African countries. King Air Charter is a sister company to King Air Services, an aviation company that has been in existence since 1991.
• Launch Year: 1995
Airlink is currently the second-largest carrier airline in Africa, judging from the number of flights it handles. The major focus of the airline at the start of its business operations was to connect small towns to bigger hub airports, but they have since expanded across Africa since it was launched in 1995.
The airline was formed by a partnership between Rodger Foster and Barrie Webb after incorporating several liquidated airlines such as Magnum Airways, Citi Air, Midlands Aviation, Lowveld Aviation Services, and Border Air to form Airlink. The official launching of the airline in 1995 was a major event as it was attended by the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II, among other dignitaries who graced the occasion.
Since then, the company has blossomed into a big brand with a great working relationship with South Africa Airways (SAA). Together with the latter and state-owned airline South African Express Airways, they formed the biggest airline network in the whole continent in 1997. At some point, Airlink was known as “South African Airlink” and used the same color scheme as SAA.
However, that strategic alliance was replaced with a franchise agreement, and in 2020, after over two decades of working closely with SAA, its franchise with them came to an end. Hence, SA Airlink changed its name to Airlink.
In 2018, SA Airlink attempted to merge with FlySafair, but the South African Competition Commission disapproved of the merger because both airlines were competitors. The case was taken to a tribunal but later withdrawn. Airlink is also the first scheduled commercial airline service to Saint Helena Airport from Johannesburg.
The success of Airlink in recent times is now attributed to the financial crisis and decline South Africa Airways is currently facing. Using low-capacity airplanes to fly to several countries across the continent is also a factor.
• Launch Year: 1989
CivAir is a helicopter charter airline in South Africa and probably the airline with the worst review. CivAir was founded in 1989 as a helicopter charter business with its headquarters in Cape Town, South Africa. In 2004, the airline decided to venture into a low-cost airline business to fly passengers from Cape Town to London – Stansted Airport – three times a week.
But to the dismay of the 7,400 people who purchased tickets from their websites (the only available means) in December 2004, CivAir did not have an aircraft put in place for the flight, neither did they officially inform ticket holders that the flight had been canceled to prove further that they were not prepared for the business as they were yet to receive landing approval from the UK government.
To add salt to the already painful injury, the airline company had inflicted on their customers, they did not refund ticket holders back their money in full, nor did they give them an official notification that the flight was canceled. As though the reputation of this airline was not ruined enough, it was discovered that the ‘Proudly African’ logo was being used by CivAir illegally, as they were not members of the South African Business Standards Association. Aside from the above-stated, very little is known about the airline’s history.
17. Federal Air
• Launch Year: 1989
FedAir, as most people fondly refer to Federal Air, is one of the leading airlines in South Africa that provides air shuttle service. The airline was formally called Comair Charters until 1993, when it was rebranded, and the name was changed to Federal Air. Their top-notch shuttle service connects rural areas in Johannesburg to the international Johannesburg hub.
On purchasing Pelican Air Services in 2009, FedAir expanded its services to include scheduled services business. Beyond domestic air shuttles, they also started taking routes between Johannesburg, Nelspruit, and Vilanculos. As one of the best air shuttles in South Africa, Federal Air shuttles by air to some of the top class game reserves in South Africa and Zimbabwe like Timbavati Private Game Reserve and Pamushana.
Also, their fleet consists of 18 aircraft, including five Beechcraft 1900, two Raytheon Beech King Air B200, and Beechcraft Baron 58, three Pilatus PC-12, and six Cessna Grand Caravan.
18. Phoebus Apollo Aviation
• Launch Year: 1979
Phoebus Apollo Aviation is a cargo airline that was founded in 1979. Seventeen years later, the Phoebus Apollo aviation school, for which they are now popularly known, was founded in 1996. Two years later, the aviation company expanded and added more services like scheduled cargo, passenger, and charter flights with Douglas DC4’s and Douglas DC3 aircraft.
The aviation school, located at Rand Airport, Germiston, has also improved, over the years, with modern aircraft like Cessna C172, Cessna C152 and is now used for advanced flight and aircraft engineering training. Also, Phoebus Apollo has expanded to become a well-known cargo carrier to different destinations outside South Africa to countries like Zimbabwe, Malawi, Angola, and a host of others. They have also improved the quality of aircraft in their fleets to Douglas DC9.
19. Safair Airlines
• Launch Year: 1965
Tropair (Pty) Ltd, which we now know today as Safair, is owned by ASL Aviation based in Ireland and was founded In 1965 as a general aviation charter company. After Safmarine acquired the company, the name was changed to Safair Freighters (Pty) Ltd, and operations began for this new entity on 18th March 1970. For over a decade, their major client was the South African Defence Force.
Until 2018, Safair has focused on humanitarian and relief support by working with international bodies like WHO, UN, UNICEF, and others to provide food and other relief items to places affected by war and poverty in Africa. In 2018, the National Antarctic Research Program (PNRA) contracted the airlines to support science by flying Lockheed L-100-30 missions all the way from Christchurch, New Zealand to Zucchelli Station in Terra Nova Bay, Antarctica, in the summer and autumn.
Currently, Safair has a large fleet size that consists of 11 aircraft, and they have also set up a subsidiary low-cost airline that flies across seven destinations in South Africa.
20. Comair (South Africa)
• Launch Year: 1943
After surviving the second world war, two World War II pilots who were based in Egypt J.M.S. Martin and A.L. Zoubert conceived the idea of starting an airline and selling this idea to two other partners, Commercial Air Services and Leon Zimmerman. As these Egypt-based hero pilots returned to South Africa in 1943, they made their idea a reality by starting Comair South Africa. In 1978, there was a fierce legal battle between Pickard Group and Final Novick for a management buyout of Comair’s aviation assets, and Novick won the battle.
In 1961, under the management of Novick, Comair expanded its fleet size and was able to start up Kulula.com, a low-cost airline, in 2001. Novick also fostered a stronger relationship with British Airways Plc, thus establishing a successful partnership with Comair through a franchise arrangement. Today, Comair operates scheduled domestic flights as a franchisee of British Airways. They fly across South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Mauritius, with a fleet size of 17. Kulula.com, a subsidiary of Comair, is currently one of the leading low-cost airlines in South Africa.
21. South African Airways
• Launch Year: 1934
South African Airways (SAA) was founded in 1934 on the 1st of February after the government of South Africa bought Union Airways. It was initially managed and controlled by the South African Railways and Harbours Administration. During apartheid era in South Africa, it was called Suid-Afrikaanse Lugdiens. Also, at that time, the airlines faced a lot of attacks and vandalization by angry protesters.
After the apartheid, the name was changed from Suid-Afrikaanse Lugdiens to South African Airways – the name it still bears now; it also experienced an ‘inside out’ rebranding. Since the airline launched into operation in 1934 with just 40 staff, they have expanded to up to 5,000 employees, with 12 aircraft that land or take off in up to 21 destinations, making it one of the largest airlines in the country.
South African Airlines is also a parent company to other low-cost airlines in South Africa like Mango Airlines. It is also linked with Airlink, South African Express Airways, and Star Alliance. In June 2021, after several financial crises, the government decided to give access to other interested partners also to have ownership shares to the airlines. The Takatso Consortium that comprises Harith General Partners and Global Airways was selected to own 51% of the shares, while the South African government retained the remaining 49%.
South African Airways currently flies to 20 destinations in 17 countries across all seven continents and has a robust presence in South Africa. Despite being owned by the government, according to the Customer Satisfaction Index for Airlines conducted by Consulta, out of 100 points, SAA scored 68.8; this is below the 72.4 average score.
This also reveals that customers are not very satisfied with their service compared to that of other privately owned airlines. The airline does not have a very active online presence, and as such, it does not have so much customer review. The partly government-owned airline is headquartered in Johannesburg – Airways Park at the O. R. Tambo International Airport.
To Accommodate The Airlines, South Africa Has 90 Functional Airports
With just 21 airlines in South Africa, the country is currently home to about 90 airports scattered around the different provinces in the country. Like the flights, while some are international airports (23 of them), others are for local flights. Most of the biggest airports in SA are owned by the Airports Company of South Africa. According to Travel Triangle, each of these airlines have an agreement with the management of airports where they either land or take off from.
Talking about airports in South Africa, the O. R. Tambo International Airport would always top any list of the biggest airports in the country. It is heralded as the main airport in South Africa, as it is the biggest and the busiest airport terminal in the country. With over 21 million passengers passing through its terminal every year, the airport has the capacity to cater for 28 million passengers annually.
It was founded in 1952 and was named Jan Smuts International Airport – after a former Prime Minister of the country. However, it was renamed Johannesburg International Airport in 1994 after the end of apartheid. It was again renamed O. R. Tambo International Airport after a former African National Congress (ANC) president, Oliver Reginald Tambo.
Headquartered in the capital city of Johannesburg, the international airport is situated in Kempton Park, Gauteng. It serves as the terminal for several airlines in South Africa, including South African Airways.