The pandemic wreaked havoc with airlines across the globe, forcing dozens to close down as flight bookings came to a halt. To protect its shareholders from further financial loss, Comair opted for business rescue on 5 May 2020. Since then, the airline has been struggling, with no relief in sight any time soon.

In South Africa, Comair operates British Airways domestic flights as a franchisee in accordance with a licence agreement, witha low-cost carrier,

Comair was late to resume flights post-Covid in September 2021, only to face further travel restrictions right before the busy December holiday season, rising fuel prices in light of the Ukraine crisis, and further suspensions in March 2022.

This slew of misfortunes mean that the airline hasn’t managed to get back on track as travel opens up again, necessitating an appeal for additional funding to speed up the process.

The impact of Comair’s struggles

The next blow came about in March 2022 when SACAA (South African Civil Aviation Authority) imposed a suspension on the airline’s Aircraft Operating Certificate, amid ongoing issues related to safety concerns.

This decision left hundreds of passengers stranded at airports across the country, with no relief in sight as the suspension went from 24 hours to ‘indefinite status’ overnight. While the airline did its best to accommodate travellers by chartering aircraft and moving their bookings to other flights, there simply weren’t enough seats for everyone.

Comair flights resumed after just five days thanks to close cooperation between Comair and SACAA. A few days later, they faced a PR nightmare as one of their planes experienced a momentary glitch with its landing gear.

At the same time, Comair started retrenching staff due to pressure from the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) and SACCA (the South African Cabin Crew Association). This led to further concerns among passengers regarding Comair’s financial state. The airline has since halted this process, but the damage is already done in the eyes of consumers.

On top of that, Comair is engaged in a legal battle with Boeing in the US about cancelling a purchase agreement for eight 737 MAX aircraft. Two fatal crashes led to an international grounding of the 737 MAX between March 2019 and December 2020, leaving Comair reluctant to fulfil its part of the agreement.

In a recently published report, Comair lay out the need for additional short and medium-term funding to find its feet.

So far, the Comair Rescue Consortium, which comprises former executives and board members of Comair, is spearheading the rescue process. Together they have managed to secure R500 million towards the process, plus additional funding of R1.4 billion from commercial lenders.

They still need more to get Comair out of its financial difficulties and are working tirelessly to accumulate the necessary funds. If they fail, it could signal the end of Comair flights.

That would deal a significant blow to South Africa’s aviation industry since Comair currently caters for around 40% of demand.

What went wrong?

While Comair has certainly suffered due to a series of unfortunate events, it’s not the only airline that’s faced similar obstacles in recent times. SAA, SA Express, Mango, and CemAir have all had their planes grounded in the past.

Despite an admirable financial record up until 2019, some self-created chinks appeared in their armour. The decision to upgrade their planes to newer more fuel-efficient ones in 2017 by going into debt to the tune of R2.2. billion has also resulted in its ongoing legal struggles.

The above factors mean Comair reported a loss for the first time ever during 2019, just as the pandemic appeared on the horizon. At the same time, the airline experienced the first of its mechanical woes when SACAA grounded its flights after the quality of maintenance work on their planes.

While it may seem unfair to ground an entire fleet due to a safety issue on one plane, the problem stemmed from the fact that a singular maintenance company is responsible for the safety of all Comair’s aircraft.

Only time will tell if Comair can rise above their ongoing challenges or if bad luck will compound the issue even more.

If Comair goes down, the lack of competition, coupled with ongoing fuel price hikescould herald another ticket price increase, which is bad news for everyone.In the meantime, travellers have many south African airlines alternatives to choose from with the likes of Lyft, FlySafair, and Airlink.



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