Travel agents are struggling to secure seats on direct flights to the UK over the upcoming peak holiday periods - the school holidays in June and July and this year’s festive season in December. The reason is simple - demand is simply much bigger than the market’s limited supply.
Capacity between South Africa and the UK (and several other countries too) is still catching up to pre-Covid levels, even though Virgin Atlantic returned to the Johannesburg route in January with 30% more capacity than previously, owing to a new Airbus A350-1000 on the route.
In April, XL Travel Group CEO, Marco Ciocchetti, described considerable demand for UK flights this year and said demand over June/July would, looking at the history, trail into August. He emphasised that the current late booking trends could make it difficult to find availability in the cheaper booking classes and that customers might well find no availability on certain return dates.
“There are other links in the travel chain that also show a real need for more capacity - visas, for example,” said a consultant who manages an Eastern Cape corporate travel agency. “The European and UK embassies are inundated with applications. I have never seen such demand for visas.”
“I have just checked schedules now for the UK starting June 15 through July and August and there are very few seats available. Return seats to South Africa look the same for those months,” the consultant said.
“Due to a lack of availability of cheaper ticket classes, a return fare at the moment is pretty steep. There is definitely a need to up capacity. However, it is difficult to understand how long this ‘need’ to travel will continue. We are already ahead of 2019 travel numbers in our agency and demand shows no sign of abating!”
In its Q1 financial report, the parent company of British Airways (BA), the International Consolidated Airlines Group (IAG) described “strong customer demand” and said it planned to bring back more capacity in a phased approach, targeting 80% of 2019 capacity in Q2, 85% in Q3, and 90% of pre-Covid capacity levels by the end of 2022. North America should be close to full capacity by Q3, the group said.
IAG’s report did not specify which markets would be adjusted first, however, BA country manager - southern and East Africa, Cristina Graham, confirmed: “We are focussed on ramping up our South African operation this Winter (April - October 2022), improving our customer experience and delivering our sustainability programme.”
Graham said South Africa routes - Cape Town and Johannesburg - had grown increasingly popular since restrictions eased. She also said that BA had been through the toughest period in its 102-year history because of the pandemic. “We really appreciate the support of our travel agents, and we are committed to engaging and working closely with them as we all continue to rebuild this industry.”
Virgin Atlantic gave no indication that capacity would be increased in the short term, but the airline is very positive about the present situation and the future. Manager International Marketing, Darrin Thomas, said: “We see strong demand, with load factors at 90%+ over the recent month. The pattern of late bookings persisted through the first quarter of this year, with most flights filling up 7-14 days before departure. However, we are now seeing a more substantial recovery for flights later in the year.”
Thomas reported significant growth in domestic connections in South Africa - connections from DUR, CPT and PLZ to the JNB flights - and he believed the airline’s partnership with Airlink had strengthened its position. He added: “The booking window now stretches to four months, evidence that confidence in travel has significantly improved”.
Thomas said there was still “reasonable” availability in December, but he encouraged booking in advance. “As expected, the peak holidays like Christmas and New Year are filling up fast”, he said. Thomas advised agents to find the availability and act quickly to recommend to the client that they book in advance due to high demand over the holiday period.
Regarding travel to the US, VS will add flights to a new US destination, Austin in Texas, on May 25. Thomas said travel to the US remains challenged due to delays in the processing of visas. But when customers do manage to get visas, popular destinations are New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Orlando.