If all goes according to plan, Dec. 15, 2019, will be a day of firsts for Cape Town.
When a United Airlines 787-9 lifts off from Newark Liberty International Airport, it will inaugurate the first-ever non-stop flight between New York and Cape Town, South Africa’s legislative capital and one of the most popular tourism destinations in Africa. It’ll also mark United’s first route to southern Africa and the first time Cape Town has enjoyed a direct air link to the United States in 15 years.
Subject to government approval, United will fly the route three times per week using a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner fitted with 48 seats in United Polaris business class, 88 seats in United Economy Plus, and 116 seats in United Economy. Between New York and Cape Town the 7,817-mile journey is expected to take 14-and-a-half hours eastbound, while the return leg will run to nearly 16 hours, making it one of longest routes on the United network.
The new route will shave four hours off the travel time between New York and Cape Town, versus flights offered by competing airlines.
“This will be a game-changer for Cape Town and the Western Cape, linking the Cape to the important North American market,” said Tim Harris, chief executive officer of economic development organization Wesgro. “It will not only boost tourism, but grow cargo and attract even more foreign direct investment into the Western Cape from U.S. companies.”
“We are always looking at ways to expand our industry-leading international route network to offer our customers more convenient options. We’re thrilled to announce the addition of Africa to our global route offering,” said Patrick Quayle, United’s vice president of international network, in a media statement.
United previously flew between Houston and Lagos, Nigeria, until the route was pulled in June 2016 amid plummeting oil prices.
The direct Cape Town route has been two years in the pipeline, explained Paul van den Berg, project manager of Cape Town Air Access (CTAA), a public-private partnership aimed at growing the city’s direct air services: “United were looking to improve their network, and about 18 months ago we started engaging with them on a regular basis. Africa is an interesting continent with a lot of potential growth, and we were able to put Cape Town on their list of potential routes.”
United’s membership in the Star Alliance is another selling point, as alliance partner South African Airways has a strong regional route network for onward connections. Since South African Airways dropped its Cape Town-Miami service in 1999, a direct route to the United States has been noticeable by its absence.
A direct flight “is something that we have been hoping for a long time now, and we are happy to see that United has chosen Cape Town,” said Ryan Hilton, co-founder of Admiral Travel International, a luxury tour operator based in Sarasota, Florida. “The additional inventory should grow demand and will provide some competition for the other two [airlines] who fly direct from the USA.”
If there’s a downside, it’s that the route is seasonal, operating between December 15 and March 31. While this is the traditional summer high season in the southern hemisphere — when European carriers also bump up capacity to Cape Town — tour operators would prefer to see the route operate year-round.
“It is a great development,” said Sean Kritzinger, group executive chairman of Cape Town-based tour operator Giltedge. “But we’d like to see the route extended through the [southern hemisphere] winter, as our American clients often come on safari from May to October. We’re hoping United use this as a test phase to see what the load factors are like, and then look to extend this year-round.”
On paper, the market looks promising.
Citing market research by flight data service OAG, van den Berg said the potential inbound market from the U.S. and Canada to Cape Town is in the region of 200,000 passengers per year. Among Cape Town’s top-10 inbound source markets, only two — the United States and Australia — are not served by direct flights. Come December, it’ll be down to one.
Richard Holmes is a Skift contributor based in Cape Town, South Africa.