Guy Leitch.

As the airline industry slowly returns to a ‘new normal’, Johannesburg based carrier CemAir is thriving. The airline is pushing ahead, into the gaps in the market left by the departure of competitors such as SA Express and Mango, and the slow restart of SAA.

CemAir CFO Dr Laura van der Molen says that the airline is focussed on optimising the use of smaller gauge aircraft. One of CemAir’s strengths is that it provides essential air connectivity to the smaller towns on the coastal routes, particularly from Johannesburg to destinations such as Margate, Plettenberg Bay and George. She notes that there has been a steady move of people away from the cities to the coastal towns and that this helped underpin the CemAir route network.

As primarily a regional operator, the CemAir fleet currently consists of: A pure jet fleet of eight CRJ 100/200 LRs, plus two -900s, with another on the way. The turboprop fleet consists of three Dash-8 Q400s with another scheduled to arrive in May, two Dash-8 Q300s, a Q100 plus seven Beech 1900Ds.

‘require a fleet upgrade to longer range aircraft’

Using regional aircraft has however not prevented them from taking on the low cost carriers who operate 186 seat Boeing 737-800s. CemAir has entered the intensely competitive Johannesburg – Cape Town and Durban ‘golden triangle’ market. However, she says that the bulk of their capacity is at peak times, such as Friday and Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings. She notes that the Bombardier CRJ900 is a particularly popular option with its 31-inch seat pitch and thus better leg room than some of its competitors.

As it emerges from the Covid-19 crisis, the small CemAir team is aggressively growing the airline’s route network.

As both a regional and an increasingly networked carrier, CemAir has become an essential component in the outgrowth of air transportation across southern Africa. A key to the growth trajectory is its increasing use of codeshares and interlining agreements. The airline has interline agreements with key network carriers including Emirates, Qatar, Egypt Air, Ethiopian and SAA, and at a regional level with Mozambique’s LAM and Zambia’s Proflight.

Reassuringly, Laura van der Molen says that they are seeing positive signs in their passenger numbers, especially in tourists from the UK and Europe. She says that they are looking to expand their regional route network.

The airline has a number of applications submitted to the South African International Air Services Licencing Council. They have applied for: Brazzaville, Gabon, Libreville, Nairobi, Freetown and Entebbe. She reports that CemAir has already been awarded the Johannesburg – Luanda route, and JHB – Lagos, as well as JHB-Maputo, JHB-Lusaka and JHB -Ndola.

more transparent bilaterals’

Even though the bilateral air service agreements are already in place, she notes that actually getting the approvals from other countries to start flying can take up to four years. A case in point is the Cape Town – Gaborone, JHB-Gaborone, JHB-Maun and JHB-Kasane routes as the Botswana government has been particularly determined to protect its local airline.

She points out that it would help the long desired goal of liberalising the African air traffic market if bilaterals were more transparent, so that it was possible to see who had been awarded which routes, even though they may not be operating them. It is also important that the ‘use it or lose it’ principle be applied to route allocations as there are many instances where moribund South African carriers, such as SA Express, Mango, Comair and SAA hold route allocations which they are not using.

Should CemAir be awarded west African routes, the length of the sectors may require a fleet upgrade to longer range aircraft. In the interim it is planned to operate these routes as direct flights, but with a technical stop for fuel. Van der Molen confirms that they have been looking at either Airbus A320s or Boeing 737-800s. However, this will entail a significant gearing-up by the airline. She points out that one of the core values of the airline is that it does its own maintenance and a move to Boeing or Airbus products would require an upgrade to its AMO in terms of skills and tooling.

CemAir specialises in providing essential air connectivity to smaller towns such as Plettenberg Bay.

Van der Molen makes the interesting observation that, due to the decline in SAA Technical with its associated loss of skills, there has been a steady need for CemAir and other SAAT customers to build their own MRO capability for key components and services.

Just a few years ago CemAir was engaged in a bruising battle with the South African CAA. Van der Molen says that the airline’s relationship with the regulator has now stabilised. She notes that one of the key challenges faced by the CAA is that it has lost many of its key skills and expertise. She describes the current relationship as one of professional courtesy and says there is now a clear understanding between the Regulator and the airline that they are both committed to providing essential air connectivity that will grow the South African economy.

On the back of the airline’s rapid bounce back they have moved into a new head office at 20 Jones Road, Jet Park, Boksburg.

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