Much of the success of European low-cost carriers has been derived from introducing routes to and from smaller airports.

The idea is that this enables LCCs to offer lower fares to clients by leveraging off the lower costs charged by these airports, who are often tasked with enticing more tourists to their region.

However, according to a recent Barsa address to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Tourism, the opposite is true in South Africa, where it is more expensive to fly to smaller airports servicing small towns than to larger ones serving big cities. According to local airline boards, the higher costs are the result of a number of interrelated factors at play, such as economies of scale and non-regulated airport tariffs.

Ceo of Aasa, Chris Zweigenthal, told Travel News that airport charges tended to be higher at smaller airports in South Africa because these airports processed fewer passengers and fewer flights, which resulted in higher unit costs. These costs were, in turn, passed on to the client through airport taxes indicated in the tax boxes on the airline ticket.

Chris added that the size of the market, as well as the frequencies offered, largely determined the aircraft used on particular routes and explained that narrow-body regional aircraft, with seating capacity between 30 and 90, usually served these markets. The objective was to provide the customers with more frequency options, stimulating the market until such point that a larger aircraft could be deployed, explained Chris.

Ceo of Barsa, Zuks Ramasia, agreed, saying that airlines that operated to thin secondary and tertiary routes (ie routes with fewer than 50 one-way passengers per day) simply could not deploy large-gauge aircraft due to a lack of demand. She said, as most airlines employed dynamic pricing practices, fares were determined based predominantly on a supply-and-demand basis.

“There is also the increased cost of maintenance, particularly where the maintenance cycle is negatively impacted due to shorter block times on these secondary and tertiary routes,” she added.

Zuks went on to explain that all passenger services charges at Acsa airports were regulated under the aeronautical tariff regime, which was approved by an independent regulator, while independently owned airport pricing was structured at the management’s discretion. This further influenced the end price of a flight to a smaller airport.

The nine Acsa airports are OR Tambo, Cape Town, King Shaka, Bram Fischer, Port Elizabeth, and Upington International Airports, and East London, George and Kimberley Airports. Some independently owned South African airports include Lanseria, Plettenberg Bay, Margate, KMIA, Hoedspruit, Richards Bay, and Pietermaritzburg.

“As these airports are not regulated, their charges would be determined by their respective executives and/or board. The airports are aware that they need to keep charges at a reasonable level to maintain competitiveness and also to encourage airlines and passengers to fly rather than use other modes of transport, such as road (often the airlines’ competitor domestically),” added Chris.

Ceo of Asata, Otto de Vries, weighed in saying the varying costs to travel to small and large airports in South Africa was, to a large extent, driven by the economic demand for a particular destination from both an outbound and inbound perspective. As demand to and from smaller airports was lower, costs at these airports were therefore often higher. He said South Africa was doing well with three critical international gateways at present and that the domestic route network made it easy to link between international flights and the more off-the-beaten track destinations in South Africa.