US travel numbers to South Africa greater than ever before, reports United Airlines

15th May 2024 By: Rebecca Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

US travel numbers to South Africa greater than ever before, reports United Airlines

A United Airlines branded Boeing 777
Photo by: United Airlines

The number of US visitors to South Africa is now higher than it was in 2019, the last year before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, United Airlines director sales continental Europe, India, Israel, Africa & Middle East Thorsten Lettnin tells Engineering News, in an exclusive interview. In 2022, the total number of travellers to South Africa from the US was some 350 000, a number on par with that for visitors to South Africa from the UK.

“Since Covid, we have seen stronger demand on our South Africa routes,” he reports. “We think this is a new normality. It’s very good for United. We’re a major facilitator of US tourism to, and trade with, South Africa. We’re really happy. Interestingly, on the business travel side, smaller companies have come back to air travel faster that the big businesses.”

Measured in available seat miles (ASMs), United is the largest airline in the world. ASMs are an international commercial aviation metric calculated by adding up the total number of miles flown by an airline’s aircraft on all its routes, then multiplying that figure by the number of flights flown by that airline; the resulting number is then multiplied by the total number of seats on all the airline’s airliners. United’s ASMs come to 293-billion.

The carrier currently operates three direct services from two hubs in the US to two destinations in South Africa. These routes are New York Newark to Johannesburg, New York Newark to Cape Town, and Washington DC to Cape Town. (The airline also serves two other destinations in Africa: Accra, in Ghana, and Lagos, in Nigeria. From October, it will start operations to Marrakech, in Morocco.)

“Our philosophy is that, if you want to do business in Africa, you come with your best product,” he assures. “We currently operate the Boeing 777 on our Cape Town routes, and the Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner on our Johannesburg route. These are our best products. They are equally good.”

“Interestingly, there is not a significant difference in tourist traffic between summer and winter,” he notes. However, the difference does justify substituting the 787 for the 777 during Cape Town’s lower season. “We provide consistent cabin quality, regardless of aircraft type.”

Both the 777 and 787 cabins are configured with four classes. Polaris (business) class has lie-flat seats, all with aisle access. Then there are three types of economy class. Premium Plus has leather seats and its own distinct space. (“It’s a super successful product,” enthuses Lettnin.) Economy Plus has standard economy class seats, but with 16 cm extra leg room for each passenger. Finally, there is the standard economy class.

Since September 2021, United has had a codesharing agreement with South African regional and domestic airline Airlink. This gives United passengers access to the 53 destinations served by Airlink, and Airlink passengers access to United’s Newark and Washington DC hubs, and through them, to the US carrier’s global network.