Delta Air Lines Will Start Flying To Cape Town

Filed Under: Delta

Delta Air Lines has just revealed plans to add Cape Town to their route map. This isn’t a time that you’d be expecting an airline to announce new international destinations, but Delta has a strategic reason for this.

The problem created by Delta’s 777 retirement

Last week we learned that Delta will be retiring their fleet of 18 Boeing 777s by the end of 2020. Delta will become the first major US airline to retire all 777s. While it’s kind of sad to see that, it also makes sense — international demand will be down for quite a while, and Delta has a lot of A350-900s and A330-900neos on order.

Delta’s A350-900 business class

All of Delta’s existing 777 routes can be flown by A350-900s, with one exception — the Johannesburg to Atlanta route. This is Delta’s longest flight, and is “only” the 10th longest flight in the world, as it covers a distance of ~8,440 miles.

Delta can easily fly nonstop from Atlanta to Johannesburg, but it’s the return flight that poses a problem for the A350-900:

  • There are significant headwinds on the westbound flight
  • Johannesburg Airport is at an altitude of 5,500 feet, and higher altitude airports greatly impact takeoff performance

What this means is that Delta can’t fly the Johannesburg to Atlanta route nonstop with a full load on the A350-900.

Delta’s solution is a Cape Town triangle route

It looks like Delta has a creative solution for maintaining Johannesburg service while also retiring the 777. Edward Russell reports that Delta will be modifying their South Africa service.

Going forward, Delta will operate the South Africa flight as a triangle route, flying from Atlanta to Johannesburg to Cape Town to Atlanta. This seems like a brilliant solution:

  • It allows Delta to add Cape Town to their route network, which is an incredibly popular leisure destination
  • It means Delta can easily fly the westbound flight with an A350-900, as the westbound flight is not only 300+ miles shorter, but Cape Town Airport is also close to sea level, improving the aircraft’s performance
  • Note that Delta won’t be able to sell tickets exclusively between Johannesburg and Cape Town, since that’s a domestic flight within another country

When will Delta start flying to Cape Town?

We don’t yet know when Delta will launch the Cape Town flight:

  • Most international routes are suspended right now, and we don’t know when Johannesburg service will resume
  • Delta is still flying 777s through the end of 2020

My best guess would be that the year-round triangle route will launch sometime in late 2020 or early 2021, assuming South Africa’s borders stay open.

Beautiful Cape Town, South Africa

Bottom line

How cool to see Delta turn South Africa service into a triangle route, as the airline will fly to both Johannesburg and Cape Town. While this was ultimately prompted by the 777 being retired, in many ways this route makes a lot of sense in general, with Cape Town being a premium leisure destination (as it’s often the city people visit in conjunction with safaris).

Delta will be the second US airline flying to Cape Town, as United Airlines launched seasonal nonstop Newark to Cape Town flights this past winter.

What do you make of Delta’s new Cape Town service?

  1. Oh dear, I bet VS are not too happy as they are planning a daily LHR-CPT and I would have thought would like the feeder traffic from DL.

  2. Who wants to go to Atlanta to catch a flight to South Africa? Especially when JFK and MIA are closer to the destination. I suppose they’ll get some transit traffic from Texas and California.

  3. This reminds me of the short hop GIG-GRU flights that UA had some time ago. Those flights ran empty most of the time and were eventually discontinued. JNB is a business heavy destination and business travelers will pick whatever routing they consider to be most optimal. Let’s see if Delta can make a go of it.

  4. I don’t understand why do they continue to fly to Johannesburg?

    Why don’t they just switch this service totally to Cape Town, a much higher demand destination.

  5. I don’t know how you can write this, Ben: “While it’s kind of sad to see that, it also makes sense.”

    Delta just spent millions of dollars renovating their 777s. I’m not sure retiring them makes sense, especially when they have to spin what is clearly a required refueling stop as the addition of a destination. Delta would have been off just eliminating South Africa and relying upon its partners KLM or Virgin Atlantic since many people, especially those in economy, would rather have two 7-8 hour fights than one super long flight.

  6. @Sharon: My guess is Delta may have a contract for freight or even mail, which explains why they fly to Johannesburg.

  7. So, let me get this right:

    Delta will fly Atlanta to Johannesburg. Everyone gets off the plane. Some passengers depart and others re-board for Johannesburg to Cape Town, but there will be no new passengers for the Johannesburg–Cape Town segment. Then, Delta flies an empty plane BACK to Johannesburg, picks up new passengers and crew and flies back to Cape Town, picks up some new passengers, and flies back to Atlanta? Is this right?

  8. @ FNT Delta Diamond — Not quite. The plane flies from Atlanta to Johannesburg to Cape Town to Atlanta. Passengers will get on in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. The plane doesn’t go back to Johannesburg a second time.

  9. @ Sharon — While Cape Town is the more popular leisure destination, Johannesburg is the business center, and also a popular jumping off point for safaris. Delta isn’t alone here. Look at the service for virtually all global airlines to South Africa, as Johannesburg is almost always the airport that gets more service.

  10. @ FNT Delta Diamond — Regarding your first comment, call me crazy, but I personally have a lot of faith in Delta management, and think they’ve probably done the math on their decision.

    A lot of people do value the convenience of a nonstop flight to South Africa. While some people may prefer two 7-8 hour flights than one super long flight, it’s not the price sensitive economy passengers this flight is targeting, but rather those willing to pay a premium for a nonstop.

    Delta is an extremely conservative airline when it comes to the routes they try, and I can bet you that they would have cut this flight a long time ago if it wasn’t making money (and making money on ultra long haul flights is extremely difficult).

  11. @Sharon – Johannesburg is a much much larger market overall than Cape Town, by a factor of over 200%. It isn’t even close.

  12. Incredibly smart move on DL’s part. The ATL-JNB is extremely popular with hunters and those going on safari. By continuing to CPT, this flight will undoubtedly have very high load factors. Even if you are flying JNB-CPT-ATL, its likely still a faster connection than transiting in Europe. I can’t wait!

  13. For those asking, I assume my experience is similar to others, but I needed to go to Joburg for business, but went to Cape Town first to see it before starting business. I imagine many people do that, they add Cape Town on to a trip they have to take to Joburg anyways, so that’s why they keep Joburg, it’s where everyone has to go, Cape Town is just where everyone wants to go.

  14. This is a great solution. I am a regular on LAX-ATL-JNB. I used to be able to take a 777 the whole way. I’d then connect on SAA to Cape Town that night or the next morning.

    This was always my optimal route as it avoided back to back red eyes. LAX-AMS-CPT/JNB was the only exception but didn’t usually work depending on time of year. AMS-CPT/JNB are day flights.

    The ATL-JNB leg lands pretty late, depending on the time of year, and I’d guess half of the plane is usually headed to CPT, in my experience. Lots do stay in JNB to catch connecting flights to safaris the next day, however. But this will get into Cape Town mid-late evening unless the flight times change significantly from what they once where.

    SQ does/did something similar between CPT and JNB, I believe.

    So will all passengers have to clear immigration in JNB? This can be slow and horribly unorganized unfortunately. That’s definitely the benefit of landing in CPT direct.

  15. This news marks a return for DL to CPT. They flew ATL/JFK-DKR-CPT in 2008 and 2009 using a 767-300ER/400ER seasonally.

  16. i wonder how security will be handled in the covid area on flights like this. its an international flight but i would assume south africans can book it as a short hop between JNB and CPT making it a domestic flight. what security measures do you think they will be required to follow and i wonder how strict it will actually be enforced.

  17. Sorry if this was addressed and i missed it but will this be a 5th Freedom route? Can you book just the JNB to CPT route as a one way?

  18. @Ross – The difference isn’t much. JFK is closer (than ATL) to JNB only by about 470 miles – that’s less than an hour’s flying time, negligible for such a long flight and esp. if you’re connecting from elsewhere.

  19. I don’t fly Delta but this makes perfect sense. Both times I traveled to South Africa it was to JNB and out of Cape Town, so on the return I had to connect in JNB.

  20. I assume you can’t fly just between Johannesburg and Cape Town. That would make the logistics of clearing immigration quite difficult since passengers are both embarking and disembarking international flights at both points. Plus, I’d assume if this is a popular route, then selling JNB-CPT would limit the amount of people who fly from JNB-CPT-ATL the whole way. And it’s a one-way flight, so I’m doubtful of them selling the domestic leg.

    On the other hand, when will they clean the plane on this flight? Will some passengers stay on? Perhaps with COVID they would do it at both airports, but make people get off.

  21. I wonder why Delta didn’t opt to fly ATL-CPT-JNB-CPT-ATL. In that way it is possible to do a roundtrip ATL-CPT nonstop and fully clean the plane in JNB for the turnaround.

  22. I thought I was pretty familiar with traffic rights rules but I’m apparently at a loss here. How can people flying Delta from ATL ever actually get to CPT on DL metal? You fly to JNB, but DL doesn’t have traffic rights solely between JNB and CPT (for now) from what I read. I see that you can pick up pax from CPT on the way out but how will anyone actually get into CPT? I’m assuming this would be fixed before they actually make this change? Thanks

  23. “How can people flying Delta from ATL ever actually get to CPT on DL metal? ”
    By not getting off the plane in JNB and continuing on to CPT? Or am I missing something?

  24. The JNB-CPT portion of the flight I assume will operate similar to how QR and TK handle their JNB-DUR (Durban) tags, where the flights stay “international” the entire time and don’t have local traffic rights between JNB-DUR. (Yes, I realize these two airlines turn around at DUR and fly DUR-JNB-hub, but the concept is similar)

    1) Fly ATL-JNB
    2) JNB passengers disembark, CPT passengers stay onboard
    3) Onboard security check in JNB after JNB passengers disembark. This involves taking your carry-on bag out of the overhead bin and holding on to it. FAs comes down the aisle to ensure all overhead bags are claimed. Any overhead bags that are not claimed, well…I’m not sure what happens… Only after the onboard security check is cleared can CPT-bound passengers use the lavatory, move around the cabin, etc.
    4) ATL-bound passengers board flight
    5) Fly JNB-CPT
    6) CPT passengers disembark, ATL passengers stay on board
    7) Onboard security check in CPT after CPT passengers disembark.
    8) Fly CPT-ATL

  25. I get that DL logistically needs to add CPT in order to make the JNB route work. However, I don’t get why this route will be attractive anymore. All of the major metro markets that have any demand to JNB (NYC, BOS, IAD, ORD, LAX, SFO) will now have a double connect/stop when they could easily fly KL or VS one stop JNB-AMS/LHR-BOS etc.

    Unless it was the price sensitive cheap traveler looking for the cheapest price why would any premium passenger willingly fly JNB-CPT-ATL-LAX?

  26. Yeah I used to take one of these type of flights frequently when I was trying to get home from one of my company’s major HQs. I’m not sure if it’s super common only in Africa, but I’ve been on a number of flights that stop in one place for 45 minutes and basically run the process @Passive Poster describes.

    Sort of annoying since you almost never get credit for the segment, despite being on the ground but oh well. Those were problems from the before times.

  27. If I’m flying to Cape Town, I don’t want to spend 90 minutes on the ground at JNB — especially in economy. I might as well fly through London. Probably works out to the same or less flying time with more comfort.

  28. What a dumb idea for this airline #1) to put the 777 out of service and #2) to fly to South Africa! Can’t imagine huge amounts of travel back and forth.

  29. One point being missed is the a350 can not fly the same routes as a b777. It can only do so with a reduced pax/cargo load. DL’s 777 leaves atl and jnb heavily loaded with both. Be prepared to be left behind. This is true of NRT which carries a reduced load and HND DL’s new hub in Japan the a350 can’t make it there unless nearly empty. We may see DL keep the 777 if travel recovers quicker than expected as their retirement is DL’s way of playing hardball with the pilots union which is refusing to take a pay cut or hours reduction during this downturn.

  30. My daughter is in Cape Town. Between her and my wife they have taken almost every airline possible from South Florida to CPT. BA, KL, EK, AF, UA, DL/KL, DL/AF, and QA. She’ll take LH in August. KL and UA are the best. MIA-AMS-CPT or FLL-EWR-CPT. She’s also flown CPT to HKG and SIN and both CX and SQ do the triangle thing serving both JNB and CPT with the same equipment. I’m happy to see Delta enter the market as we have a ton of their miles.

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