Sipho Mabena

By Sipho Mabena

Premium Journalist

How Cape Town International Airport’s jet fuel shortage hit airlines

Airlines have been running at a loss, having to carry enough jet fuel and sacrifice paying cargo as jet fuel shortage bites.

The tanker carrying jet fuel has docked at Cape Town harbour in time to avoid a dry-out but the delay has hit airlines hard, with cancelled flights, abandoned cargo and carrying more fuel than the aircraft’s paying cargo.

Since it could not secure fuel at the Cape Town International Airport, the US’s United Airlines had to cancel its New York to Cape Town flight on Monday and return flight on Tuesday.

The much-needed cargo on the tanker was reportedly delayed due to continued bad weather and was scheduled to arrive a week ago.

On Monday afternoon the Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) said that the vessel carrying jet fuel had docked and fuel deliveries to the airport were expected to resume on Tuesday evening after necessary quality processes had been completed. 

ALSO READ: Jet fuel shortage: Commuters brace for flight disruptions

“Acsa has managed to, with the support from airlines, increase the number of days of jet fuel reserves at Cape Town International Airport (CTIA). All flights are operating as scheduled,” spokesperson Gopolang Peme said.

The airport management company said Cape Town International Airport management continued to engage airlines and fuel suppliers to ensure a reduction in the uplift of fuel, while maintaining operational continuity.

Peme said this has ensured that flight disruptions were minimised, and to date, only one airline had to cancel their international flight.

Acsa also urged international travellers to arrive at least four hours before departure as this will assist in their facilitation.

Tanking a costly exercise

Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) has lamented that while the cost of the impact on the airlines was yet to be determined, these have been massive.

Spokesperson Linden Birns explained that jet fuel rations due to the shortage meant airlines had to carry enough fuel for a return flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, sacrificing paying cargo and passengers.

He said normally an aircraft would fly from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport to Cape Town International Airport with just enough fuel for the flight and a reserve in case of bad weather or delay in landing.

“So you’d normally carry enough fuel for that and try and maximise the amount of payload, in other words, the amount of paying passengers and cargo that you can carry. An aircraft has a finite maximum take-off weight, determined by the elevation of the airport for the departing flight, it’s determined by the length of the runway at that airport and it’s determined by the outside air temperature at take-off,” Birns said.

He said asking airlines to fill up to ensure they still have enough fuel to fly back to Cape Town meant adding the extra weight of more fuel. More fuel is also burnt to carry that load.

“For some airlines, they will have been leaving cargo behind… I am not aware of any local airlines that had to leave passengers behind but they’ve certainly had to leave cargo,” Birns said.

He said bigger airlines were able to carry that extra fuel and that this was why AASA believed government ought to have waived additional air navigation and airport fees that airlines incurred.

Birns said it was not clear when the supply of the fuel will be fully restored as it had to be taken to a refinery, tested and then allowed to settle after spending days at sea.

ALSO READ: Transnet averts jet fuel crisis at OR Tambo, but no clear skies ahead just yet

In May, damage to Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) infrastructure in KwaZulu-Natal following the destructive storms and resultant floods impacted jet fuel supplies to OR Tambo International Airport.

Transnet’s emergency jet fuel supply plan averted a crisis at the airport, with airlines reportedly spending a staggering R1.5 million to divert each flight either to Durban or as far as Namibia for refuelling due to the shortage of fuel.

Lack of planning

Independent aviation analyst Phuthego Mojapele said the current shortage was unexpected as Cape Town International Airport was a coastal airport and that such an occurrence could have been foreseen and planned for.

He said while Acsa was a management company providing administrations and resources and not responsible for fuel supply, the company needed to ensure a reliable jet fuel supply to continue to make money.

ALSO READ: Jet fuel shortage: Mbalula assures airlines that supply has been restored

Mojapele said with the OR Tambo shortage it was understandable as the fuel had to be shipped from the coast to inland, but in this case it appeared as if there was just no planning in terms of ensuring the reliability of the supplier.

“The operating at Cape Town International Airport met last week to discuss as they were told that they were only left with stock of up to five days and would need to reduce the uplift out of Cape Town, particularly the international routes. There has been not much or any impact on domestic flights as these they can pick up enough fuel,” he added.