Passengers prepare to disembark from a kulula plane at Cape Town International Airport. File Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Passengers prepare to disembark from a kulula plane at Cape Town International Airport. File Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Comair, the JSE-listed airline operator, has suspended flights to a number of Southern African countries due to travel restrictions forced on it by the coronavirus outbreak.

The operator of low-cost carrier kulula.com said on Thursday the decision followed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of drastic measures to curb the spread of coronavirus and the subsequent promulgation of travel restrictions in SA and other governments in Southern Africa.

The suspension of the flights is the latest setback for the company which has taken a blow from SAA’s financial woes. The state-owned airline, in business rescue, owes Comair R790m as part of a settlement agreement regarding SAA’s alleged anticompetitive conduct.

The company has also suffered financial losses as a result of the grounding of Boeing 737 MAX 8s. In 2014 Comair became the first African airline operator to order eight Boeing MAX 8s for R9bn as part of a fleet renewal and expansion strategy. It took delivery of the first 737 MAX 8 aircraft in February 2019 and it has since been grounded because of safety concerns.

The company, which has a licence to fly the British Airways brand in SA, said flights to destinations such as Windhoek (Namibia), Livingstone (Zambia), Harare (Zimbabwe), Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and Mauritius would be put on hold as the countries are taking drastic steps to curb the spread of coronavirus.

This comes after competitor SAA also scaled down capacity in response to the low demand for air travel.

“The effects of the outbreak of the coronavirus have led to travel disruptions and restrictions across the world, leading to the grounding of aircraft, releasing employees, and cancelling flights for many airlines. SAA is not immune to these realities,” the national airline said on Wednesday.

The airline said after a review of its flight schedule, it had decided to operate flights “under circumstances where its load factors and other business considerations weigh in favour of scheduling flights”.

SAA chief commercial officer Philip Saunders said despite the decline in demand, the airline was reviewing its schedule “to match capacity with demand to the extent possible. Where feasible, we will consider options that include cancelling and merging flights”.

Between March 17 and 31, SAA has cancelled a total of 162 flights, 38 of which are international flights and 124 are to destinations in the rest of Africa.

njobenis@businesslive.co.za