There was confusion at South African airports on Friday as many travel ban regulations kicked off while some passengers were mid-air.
South Africa has designated about 10 countries as high risk in terms of probability to carry coronavirus and spread it. Some of the countries are Iran, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK, US and China.
Embassies of these countries on South Africa’s 10-country travel ban list are making serious efforts to get their nationals — and some staff members — home after SAA cancelled all international flights and foreign airlines announced plans to cancel or cut back.
As the travel ban begins, only South African citizens and those with permanent residence were allowed to disembark.
Reports confirm that about twenty flights — from SAA, British Airways, Air China, Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, Air France and Kulula — were affected.
South African Transport minister Fikile Mbalula who has been very vocal on the issue of coronavirus held another face-to-face media conference at OR Tambo International Airport on Friday on the imperatives of the travel ban. But it seems Covid-19 social distancing is seemingly not applicable to politicians as the minister was flanked by some of his colleagues during the press conference.
He made some clarifications: “I want to dismiss the false information going around that the airports are closed or closing. No airport is closing, all operations are normal,” he said, while confirming that hundreds of people were turned away from South Africa’s international airports.
“Those aircraft arrived here today (on Friday) because by the time the regulations and the Notam was issued, they were already leaving or ready for take-off in their countries of origin”.
Notice to airmen or not is filed with an aviation authority to alert pilots of hazards along the way or at airports where they are scheduled to land. Since the travel ban, a number of airlines has cancelled their scheduled flights and more are expected to follow suit, said Mbalula.
OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Cape Town International Airport and King Shaka International Airport in Durban are the only airports where passengers from high-risk countries will be processed under the regulations issued.
However, South Africans returning from high-risk countries will, however, still be allowed to return as they have constitutional rights to enter their country without being turned back.
These passengers will not be allowed to get into the country directly but will be screened by port health authorities after being transported to the provincial centres for disease control to be examined and informed about the applicable quarantine measures.
CEO of Airports Company South Africa, Mpumi Mpofu, said ACSA, state agencies and the Home Affairs and Health departments were co-ordinating activities to manage the passage of passengers from high-risk countries.
Mpofu said: “Port health and the Department of Home Affairs go on the flight and screen those people on the flight and determine if they are South African citizens. Once there is a determination that they are South African citizens, we have allowed for buses to be taken to the airport site where South Africans will be screened.”
Mbalula also mentioned the example of an Air China flight which landed on Friday morning and from which 80 South African citizens disembarked, while the 68 Chinese citizens on board were forced to return to China.
Passengers are asked to contact their airlines for further details. A number of flights had already been cancelled and more would be cancelled in the coming days.
Delta and United Airlines, the only airlines other than SAA to fly directly between South Africa and the US, are rumoured to be among the operators affected.
It is reported that American nationals, including diplomats posted in South Africa, have been very edgy under the current circumstance. Diplomats have been advised by the US State Department that they are free to leave their posts and go home if they fear being exposed to the virus in host countries.
Meanwhile, the British High Commission is preoccupied with the efforts to help British nationals get home. “We’re not doing much else right now,” British High Commissioner to South Africa Nigel Casey said.
BA and Virgin Atlantic will be working hard in the next week or so to repatriate British nationals.
The High Commissioner indicated that he was doing everything possible to keep air travel open between South Africa and the UK, despite the South African ban on incoming British nationals.
Casey said British Airways will continue flying to SA though all airlines would have to reassess their positions daily as the crisis unfolds.
He reiterated the obvious that all airlines make the bulk of their money from business-class seats and cargo, while the rest at the back help them break even.
BA will recover losses from its cargo business hopefully as cargo was not affected by South Africa’s ban on travel and cargo holds were likely to remain full.
Together with South Africans returning from the UK, this should provide enough business for BA, even if economy class is not always full.
Most of the passengers heading back to the UK include many who have been on holiday or business in Southern Africa.
Casey gave thumbs up to South African authorities for interpreting the ban on incoming British nationals fluidly by allowing transit passengers to pass through OR Tambo Airport en route.
It was reported that two of such passengers included a couple from Northern Ireland who were stranded on the tarmac of Lanseria Airport for a day and a half after returning from a birthday trip to Zimbabwe by private charter were eventually permitted to transit to Cape Town to catch their flight home.
Casey said the High Commission was helping to move British nationals to OR Tambo from cruise ships such as the German-operated Aida Mira, which is now docked in Cape Town.
On how travel ban would affect trade, Casey opined thus: “overwhelming focus has to be on saving lives and defeating Covid-19. Everyone else is secondary. That’s our priority in South Africa. We’re working flat-out to help our nationals.”
He explained further that the UK was ready to share its experiences in dealing with the pandemic with African countries.
The German Embassy has also been making serious efforts to negotiate its way around travel restrictions and get German citizens out of South Africa.
There have been social media campaigns informing Germans about how to leave. German national carrier Lufthansa, along with the Dutch KLM and others, were still flying to Europe on Friday.
US ambassador Lana Marks indicated that the safety and security of US citizens overseas was her highest priority. Marks said they are assessing travel ban restrictions continually in order to update US travellers.