Delta Hits Back at United’s Cape Town Plans

The Atlanta-based carrier has pulled no punches in its response to United Airlines’ request to launch a second route to Cape Town in South Africa.

Credit: Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg/Alamy Stock Photo
Delta's check-in desk at Johannesburg, which it flies to from Atlanta and Newark.

The battle between Delta Air Lines and United Airlines for three of the remaining four frequencies available under the current air services agreement between the US and South Africa is heating up.

Delta claims its plans to serve Cape Town are “superior in all material aspects” to United's proposals. The SkyTeam alliance member applied in February to the US Transportation Department (DOT) for the rights to operate flights between Atlanta (ATL) and Cape Town (CPT), which it wants to serve 3X-weekly from Nov. 18 using Airbus A350-900s. 

United meanwhile wants to operate a 3X-weekly nonstop Washington Dulles (IAD)-Cape Town route from Nov. 17. Flights would operate year-round using Boeing 787-9 aircraft.

Under the existing US-South Africa bilateral agreement, air service to South Africa is limited to 21 weekly frequencies for US carriers—of which four are still available. Delta and United have the rights for daily service to Johannesburg (JNB) from Atlanta and Newark (EWR) respectively, while United also has approval for a 3X-weekly Newark-Cape Town service.

In a filing to the DOT, Delta says approval of United’s request for three of the frequencies “would not serve the public interest” and instead would “cement United’s advantage” on US-Cape Town flights.

Delta adds: “The math is simple: United has been awarded 10 frequencies for South Africa service, Delta only seven. Approving Delta’s application enhances competition, and thus consumer benefits, whereas approving either of United’s proposals would perpetuate an imbalance in South Africa flying or result in a United monopoly in serving Cape Town nonstop from the US.”

Delta last served Cape Town in 2009 and tried to launch an Atlanta-Johannesburg-Cape Town-Atlanta triangle service in 2020 and 2021 but failed to secure the green light from South Africa’s government.

United has proposed splitting the remaining four US-South Africa frequencies to both carriers can launch new 2X-weekly routes to Cape Town. However, Delta said the net effect of the proposal would give United a “lopsided 5:2 advantage in weekly US-Cape Town flights and a 12:9 advantage in US-South Africa flights overall.” 

“This outcome if far from ‘equitable’ and would only perpetuate United’s current advantage on US- South Africa nonstop routes,” the Delta filing says. “In contrast, Delta’s proposal, if granted, would equitably allow Delta to keep pace with United’s US-South Africa frequency portfolio.”

United previously argued that its proposal for a 3X-weekly IAD-CPT service would offer “significant consumer benefits” including facilitating important government-to-government links. It added that the route would also create connecting opportunities at Cape Town via partner Airlink to 15 points across Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The Star Alliance member also said 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.”

However, Delta said this characterization is “misleading and misplaced” as the African continent largely consists of Open Skies countries, meaning United has been free “to expand its service to continental Africa at its commercial discretion.”  It adds that because US-South Africa routes are limited to 21 weekly frequencies, United therefore holds a structural advantage.

Delta has therefore requested that the DOT denies United’s request and instead approves its plans for a 3X-weekly ATL-CPT service.