United Vies With Delta For Cape Town Frequencies

United hopes to begin flying between Washington and Cape Town from November but will face competition for the available weekly frequencies under the US-South Africa air services agreement.

Credit: Allan Baxter/Getty Images

United Airlines has applied to the US Transportation Department (DOT) to launch a second route to Cape Town (CPT) alongside its existing service from Newark (ERW).

The Chicago-based carrier wants to connect the South African city with Washington Dulles (IAD) three times per week from Nov. 17. Flights would operate year-round using Boeing 787-9 aircraft.

However, the airline is set to compete with Delta Air Lines for the frequencies, given that under the current air services agreement between the US and South Africa there are only four unused weekly flights available to US carriers.

Delta is hoping to take three of them for a service between Atlanta (ATL) and Cape Town. The SkyTeam alliance member applied to the DOT in February for the rights to operate the route, which it wants to serve from Nov. 18 using Airbus A350-900s.

In a filing to the DOT, United argues that its proposal would offer “significant consumer benefits” including facilitating important government-to-government links. It adds that the IAD-CPT route would also create connecting opportunities at Cape Town via partner Airlink to 15 points across Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

“In addition to seamlessly connecting key business and government hubs between the US and South Africa and enhancing consumer options and convenience, the allocation of these frequencies to United will enhance competition against Delta, which has been the incumbent US carrier to continental Africa for almost two decades,” United’s application says.

In a separate filing responding to Delta’s application for a 3X-weekly ATL-CPT service, United accuses Delta’s plans of being “an afterthought for its South Africa vision.” It also claims the proposal “offers unpredictability and lacks vision.”

However, United admits it “would be amenable to accepting an immediate allocation of two weekly frequencies to both Delta and United.”

“With this outcome, both carriers’ customers and communities win, as United and Delta would both be able to execute their Cape Town plans immediately and without the need to undergo a lengthy contested Department carrier selection proceeding,” the filing from United says.

United opened a route between Newark and Cape Town in December 2019, marking its return to the African market for the first time since suspending flights to Lagos (LOS) in Nigeria in 2016.

After pausing operations at the start of the pandemic, the airline began a Newark-Johannesburg (JNB) route in June 2021 and resumed Newark-Cape Town last December. In February, the Star Alliance member also confirmed plans to convert the seasonal EWR-CPT route to a year-round service, starting in June.

Delta, meanwhile, last served Cape Town in 2009. As well as seeking approval for the nonstop Atlanta-Cape Town route, the airline in 2020 and 2021 tried to launch an Atlanta-Johannesburg-Cape Town-Atlanta triangle service but failed to secure the green light from South Africa’s government.

In its latest application for the ATL-CPT route, Delta says: “The proposed service will increase travel and trade opportunities, boost Atlanta and regional economies, create jobs, and provide benefits to travelers across the US.

“Delta’s superior operational reliability and customer service will benefit passengers who would make use of these proposed services.”