SA Airlink to launch E-Jet operations in South Africa

South African carrier Airlink is to grow its operations with the introduction of larger regional jet equipment. Already a long-term Embraer customer, Airlink, the largest independent regional airline in southern Africa, has agreed a deal with the Brazilian manufacturer’s leasing business to introduce its first E-Jets into its fleet to replace its older British-built Avro RJ85 airliners.

The airline has agreed to initially acquire five E-Jets - three E170s and two E190s, from ECC Leasing, a wholly-owned Embraer subsidiary. It will start to receive the aircraft in the first half of this year with the first aircraft – a former Republic Airlines E190 - already painted in full Airlink livery in preparation for delivery. A further eight E190s will join the Airlink fleet subject to formalisation of lease deals.

“This is the beginning of the implementation of a well planned growth and modernization strategy for Airlink that includes replacing our current fleet of Avro RJ85s over the next three years. The strategy calls for a total of 13 E-Jets, and we are in the process of sourcing the balance of the fleet requirement – an additional eight E190s – from the market,” said Rodger Foster, chief executive officer, Airlink.

“The unique performance characteristics of the E-Jet family will enable Airlink to operate within the challenging environment of the region, including short field and “hot and high” operations, while managing capacity and providing for growth,” he added.

Airlink currently operates a fleet of 12 Avro RJ85s which are configured to seat 83 passengers. The fleet renewal will see the carrier not only grow its capacity offering but also potentially expanding its network thanks to the operational performance of the E-Jets.

“The E190’s ETOPS (Extended Twin Engine Operations) capability and range presents Airlink with new market opportunities to address isolated destinations that were previously beyond our reach and in some instances that have never enjoyed the privilege of reliable scheduled air services, said Foster.

Operating as a franchise partner for South African Airways supporting the operations of South African Express, Airlink operates a mix of smaller 37-seat ERJ 135s and 48-seat ERJ-145s across a network linking many of the smaller towns, cities and regional centres in southern Africa. Its network encompasses 36 destinations in nine African countries, including Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, but which is dominated by South Africa. At the end of last year, it started to introduce eleven second-hand ERJ140s into its fleet, which by the end of the year will see it operate 30 ERJs – 17 ERJ135s, 11 ERJ140s and two ERJ145s.

The airline currently carries more than 1.4 million passengers annually with a passenger split of approximately 30 per cent leisure and 70 per cent business passengers with its Avro and Embraer fleets complement by smaller BAe Jetstream turboprops and Cessna Caravans. Its main hub is at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg where it seeks to meet both point-to-point travel requirements whilst also optimising interline connectivity with South African Airways.

Airlink has yet to upload its E-Jet flight inventory, but the aircraft will likely initially substitute directly for the RJ85s across existing routes. According to schedule data from intelligence provider OAG for the forthcoming year, the RJ85 is currently scheduled to be deployed on flights to 23 different markets, including daily flights from Cape Town to George, Nelspruit and Pretoria and from Johannesburg to Kasane, Nelspruit, Pietermaritzburg and Polokwane in South Africa; Antananarivo, Madagascar; Bulawayo, Zimbabwe; Maun, Botswana; and Ndola, Zambia.

Although Airlink will grow its international activities to its highest level in 2017, its domestic network will still account for over 60 per cent of its operations and underpins a stable growth strategy that has seen overall capacity increase year-on-year since 2012. After conservative capacity growth in 2015 (3.3 per cent) and 2016 (2.4 per cent), the airline is set to grow its network 10.7 per cent in 2017, based on published schedules. This driven by growth across all country markets and a 50 per cent capacity rise out of Namibia, a market it has been serving since 2014.

Richard Maslen

Richard Maslen has travelled across the globe to report on developments in the aviation sector as airlines and airports have continued to evolve and…