Airlines cancel flights as South Africa power crisis deepens

A United Airlines aircraft lands at San Francisco International Airport on March 13, 2019. The airline was among that cancelled flights to Cape Town International Airport.

What you need to know:

  • United currently flies thrice-weekly to Cape Town from Newark but Sunday night cancelled its scheduled flight, telling passengers that the reason was that "we [United] were unable to fuel your plane".
  • Dutch national airline KLM also cancelled a return flight on Sunday night, although another of its scheduled flights landed late Sunday.

South Africa’s airports authority is scrambling to get jet fuel to Cape Town International Airport as major airlines cancel, or consider cancelling, flights into the city, just as the annual tourism season gets going.

And in a related issue, another fuel shortage, South Africa’s ongoing power blackouts have been severely exacerbated and extended by a shortage of diesel to keep power-producer Eskom’s expensive but vital electricity supply back-up open cycle turbines operating.

Tourism operators are deeply concerned about the impacts of ongoing blackouts, leaving most areas with two or more multi-hour outages a day, and even more worried that Cape Town, one of the country’s main arrival points for overseas tourists, will fall off the global tourism map.

The US’s United Airlines has already cancelled flights to the city, and other major airlines are doing the same or planning to.

United currently flies thrice-weekly to Cape Town from Newark but Sunday night cancelled its scheduled flight, telling passengers that the reason was that "we [United] were unable to fuel your plane".

Dutch national airline KLM also cancelled a return flight on Sunday night, although another of its scheduled flights landed late Sunday.

The airline expected to continue its scheduled daily return flights from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, but warned travellers to keep appraised of the situation, which will sharply worsen if jet fuel is not delivered imminently, as promised.

A spokesman for the government-owned Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) said that every effort was being made to supply Cape Town’s airport with enough jet fuel to satisfy international airlines that there were reliable supplies for their long-haul flights to the city.

Çape Town is frequently a starting point for international visitors looking to take advantage of favourable exchange rates and the many special offers around the country, as the tourism industry recovers from the disastrous effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

ACSA is waiting on a shipment of jet fuel, apparently delayed for over a week due to unspecified weather-induced problems.

Restriction of fuel for inbound airlines has already triggered extra stops and halted some routes.

On Friday, domestic airlines were told they can only receive 50 percent of their usual orders for flights on the ground in Cape Town to preserve resources through the coming days.

International tourism contributes significantly to the country’s gross domestic product and brings much-needed foreign currency.

According to Stats SA, the government’s statistical analysis arm, tourism contributed 3.7 percent to GDP in 2019, being the immediate pre-Covid metric, with the sector growing 1.2 percent, over 2018, and generating US$6.75 billion.

With a post-Covid rebound underway, there were great hopes for the forthcoming tourism season, set to return at least to 2019 levels.

In anticipation of a back-to-business tourism season this southern hemisphere summer, Emirates airline is pushing ahead with extra services to Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg.

On the wider electricity supply crunch, government-owned Eskom has been under severe pressure to reduce the duration and frequency of outages that are costing billions a day.

As a result of ageing and ill-maintained coal-fired stations repeatedly going down over recent weeks, Eskom had been running its 20 open-cycle turbines, which use diesel as fuel, almost full time.

Together the turbines, which have the huge advantage of being immediately brought into operation as needed without a long start-up process such as coal or nuclear plants require, produce 3GW of electricity.

Aside from the sheer cost, which is high at about $13.3m daily or $400m a month, the immediate problem is that without diesel, which is being rushed by road to restock emptied storage tanks that supply the turbines, the already heavily-constrained South African power grid is down by another few gigawatts which it cannot afford.

The total requirement in early evenings when the peak demand is hit is around 32-33GW.

But Eskom has at least 16GW out of operation due to “unplanned outages”, meaning technical breakdowns, plus about 7GW under planned maintenance.’

Taken together, the outages from the mainline power plants have reduced Eskom’s installed capacity of around 48GW to functionally well below requirements and at about 6-7GW short of peak demand.

This requires shared outages, termed rolling blackouts, for every area of the country daily, causing widespread dislocations in the agricultural, mining, and commercial sectors and costing the economy around $110 million daily in lost productivity.

After lengthy delays in bringing in private sector power producers, mainly wind and solar, South African authorities are now racing ahead to green light as many of these quick-build power projects as possible.

Despite such emergency measures, the blackouts are expected by energy experts to continue to be a feature of daily life for at least the next two years, which is about how long it will take for the emergency measures to come on line and fill the power gap.

Helping with that, is co-generation by mining and industry players which are taking steps to become energy independent, some with capacity to flow power back into the national grid rather than draw from it.


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