United Airlines wants to add service between Washington-Dulles and Cape Town, South Africa. The carrier proposes to fly the route thrice weekly, complementing its 3x weekly service from Newark.
The United application comes just two weeks after Delta Air Lines announced its intentions to serve Cape Town from its Atlanta hub.
United’s application creates a different sort of competition in the market. With only four remaining flight frequencies available to allocate the US Department of Transportation cannot authorize both airlines’ full requests.
United would alternate service days between Dulles and Newark, delivering six flights a week in the market. It believes that a compelling factor compared to Delta’s offer.
United goes so far as to note “Delta’s proposal offers unpredictability and lacks vision.” United specifically calls out Delta’s retirement of its 777-200LR fleet, “the aircraft in its fleet most suitable for South Africa operations,” as part of its reasoning for that claim.
But United is also willing to compromise given the contested slot situation.
Rather than allocating three slots to one of the two airlines (and leaving the last remaining slot idle), United proposes a 2-2 split:
in lieu of a full-blown carrier selection proceeding that would drain both the Department and the airlines’ time and resources—and only if Delta is also willing—United would be amenable to accepting an immediate allocation of two (2) weekly frequencies to both Delta and United. With this outcome, both carriers’ customers and communities win, as United and Delta would both be able to execute their Cape Town plans immediately and without the need to undergo a lengthy contested Department carrier selection proceeding.
This approach likely benefits United more than Delta given the alternate routing via Newark and flexibility offered in terms of crew staffing for the trips. Whether Delta is willing to accept the compromise remains to be seen.
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Matt Santini says
Where are the DOT slot restrictions? Are they visible? What is the determining factor for intl flights to a specific destination? For example, how many slots has DOT assigned to direct AMS flights?
Seth Miller says
Traffic rights between countries are determined by treaties, typically called a bilateral air services agreement. Between the US and EU the treaty is known as “open skies” which means (more or less) that any airline can fly between any points among the participating parties. So the DOT won’t limit access to AMS. AMS is a special case in that it has a limited number of total slots available so a US airline can’t simply show up 10x daily without advance planning, but that number is not limited by the government-level treaty between the countries.
Many countries are not considered “open skies” for their air services, which means the numbers are limited. It can be as simple as a set number of flights operated by airlines from each country, or incredibly complex. Before the US/EU Open Skies treaty US-UK operations were governed by a treaty known as Bermuda II, which said that only two airlines from each country could use Heathrow. BA/VS and AA/UA (UA got its slots from Pan Am, I believe) were the designated airlines. After Open Skies everyone had access to Heathrow, though they still had to acquire landing slots at the airport (similar to AMS) and many airlines paid dearly for them.
The US-China relationship goes so far as to designate different tiers of cities on the Chinese side, with different limits for each tier. US carriers generally have exhausted all the Tier 1 slots, though some become available every now and then when an airline backs out of a market.
For the US-South Africa the agreement is here. It includes details on which airports can be used for a stop en route (many planes don’t have the range to make the trip nonstop) and the numbers of frequencies available to each country.