In a sense Airlink has been forced to the forefront of the SA airline industry, but it hasn't all been plain sailing for this commercially vibrant operator with the carrier facing allegations of predatory pricing. Read more.

On Thursday 10 August, a previously unidentified flying object descended from the heavens in Pietermaritzburg.

It was the largest and most unusual commercial aeroplane ever seen at the city’s small local airport.

Airlink, which is the main carrier out of Pietermaritzburg, first unveiled the new Embraer E195 jetliner, resplendent in shiny black livery on a test flight out of OR Tambo on 13 July. The distinctive addition to the fleet made a grand touch down at Pietermaritzburg airport 28 days after its inaugural flight .

Christa Fourie, who piloted the ‘little’ black number has proudly declared it her new favourite in terms of looks and performance.

The dramatic entrance was designed to bring attention to the airline’s new rewards programme.

Extra benefits for frequent flyers

The frequent flyer programme, called Skybucks, launched in March 2023. It allows passengers four tiers of membership based on how many times they book Airlink flights.

The levels are blue, red, emerald, and by-invitation-only black. Each tier offers increasing rewards up to a maximum value of 5% off the base rate plus YQ tax of each flight.

Passengers who qualify for Skybucks Emerald also enjoy extra privileges, like:

- Priority check-in

- Priority boarding

- Priority baggage

- Slow lounge access

- Complimentary pre-seating and upgrades

Airlink CEO, Rodger Foster, says the rewards programme, coupled with the striking new plane, highlights the airline’s commitment to putting the glamour back into flying, and bringing back the allure of the skies.

Challenging the competition

Airlink’s successes are not without criticism, though. The Airline is currently appearing before South Africa’s Competition Tribunal concerning its pricing between OR Tambo and Mthatha airports.

The 2018 antitrust investigation hinges on three complaints, including one from the Fly Blue Crane airline, which operated from September 2015 to November 2016 out of OR Tambo.

Fly Blue Crane launched with low-fare flights between Johannesburg and Kimberley, Cape Town, Bloemfontein, George, and Mthatha.

The accusation is that Airlink abused its dominance on the Mthatha route by lowering its prices to force Blue Crane’s exit from this route.

The Competition Tribunal sought an administrative penalty comprising 10% of Airlink’s annual turnover before referring the matter to the Competition Tribunal.

Airlink disputes these accusations along with others accusing the airline of charging exorbitant prices along the Mthatha route.

Meanwhile, the Mthatha-based OR Tambo District Chamber of Business is pleading with Airlink to reduce its prices and remain as an operator on the Johannesburg-Mthatha route.

The matter commenced on 7 August and should run its course by 18 August.

Onward and upward

Despite this challenge, Airlink is forging ahead with its expansion into Africa. The following are recent developments on this front:

- New Malawi route

In September, Airlink will launch flights between South Africa and Malawi’s Blantyre and Lilongwe airports.

This makes Malawi the sixteenth African country among the airline’s offering. Apart from its obvious touristic benefits, the flights also serve the aims of Malawi’s Growth and Development Strategy.

Flights to Lilongwe Kamuzu Airport will take place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while the service to Blantyre Chileka Airport will run on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. In both cases, return flights will depart on the same day as the inbound flights.

- Daily Nairobi flights

In April 2023, Airlink became the first private sector airline to offer direct flights from Johannesburg to Nairobi. This service supports South Africa’s removal of visa requirement for Kenyan visitors and provides a vital connection between these major African economies.
The flights depart daily from OR Tambo and return from Nairobi on the same day.

- Building neighbourly relationships

In September, Airlink acquired a 40% strategic equity holding in Fly Namibia, a privately-run operator based in Windhoek.

Thanks to this partnership, Fly Namibia will now be able to promote its offerings to travel agents across the globe, via the GDS (global distribution system).

The GDS promises increased exposure for Fly Namibia, makes it easier for passengers to book flights, and will help boost the Namibian economy thanks to increased accessibility.

The move is also in line with the Namibia Airports Company’s goal to position Hosea Kutako International Airport as an attractive alternative SADC region gateway hub.

Global Impressions

As Airlink continues to forge its way in every direction, fellow members of the aviation industry chose to honour its CEO/MD, Rodger Foster, with the 2023 Ato Girma Wake Award.

This award, presented by AviaDev, recognises the airlines Outstanding Contribution to Route Development in Africa.

In July this year, Airlink also received the FlightGlobal-Korn Ferry Airline Strategy Award in recognition of how it reinvented itself in the wake of SAAs demise followed closely by the onset of the pandemic.

During his acceptance speeches, Foster expressed his gratitude to his team of highly professional, competent, and motivated people.

Considering this, it seems likely that Airlink will continue its domination of the local and regional airline market for some time, which is a promising prospect for others hoping to expand their businesses further afield in a similar fashion.


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