East London is South Africa’s fastest growing airport; 39.7 million passengers in 2016; traffic up five million in four years

Thomas Cook Airlines London Gatwick Cape Town

Cutting the anna.aero-commissioned cake for Thomas Cook Airlines’ new route to Cape Town from London Gatwick on 15 December are Stephen King, Gatwick’s Head of Airline Relations and James Burrows, Thomas Cook’s Director of Aviation. Cape Town traffic is up 7.1% in 2016, with it accounting for nearly 26% of South African passengers last year.

South Africa welcomed over 39.7 million passengers through its top airports in 2016. In 2013 the same airports welcomed five million fewer passengers. According to Statistics South Africa, 8.9 million foreign visitors came to South Africa in 2015. However, this dropped 6.3% when compared to the 9.5 million that came in 2014. Looking over statistics for the first 11 months of last year, the average month-on-month increase in international tourists to South Africa is 18%, highlighting that the market is growing again. 

East London is South Africa’s fastest growing airport of 2016

Having accomplished an almost 19% increase in traffic over the past 12 months, East London has claimed the title of being the fastest growing airport in South Africa for 2016. The airport welcomed over 806,000 passengers last year, beating the 679,000 that passed through East London in 2015. The second best performing airport for growth last year was Kimberley, with its traffic growing by 11%. Overall the top airports of South Africa witnessed nearly 39.7 million passengers in 2016, up 5.3% on the year before. 

Source: airports.co.za

Johannesburg, which welcomed an increase in traffic of 3.8% in 2016, remains the dominant force in South Africa, with it accounting for over 52% of passengers last year. However, its majority share has dropped by 0.7% from 2015. It is followed by Cape Town (traffic up 7.1% in 2016) which accounts for 26% of passengers. Durban (8.4%) sits third with 13%, while Port Elizabeth (-0.1%) in fourth has 4.0%. 

Johannesburg and Cape Town both witness double-digit growth 

Since 2013 traffic at Johannesburg has grown by over 10%, with the airport passing the 20-million barrier last year. However, Cape Town, which has now passed 10 million annual passengers, has gained on the largest airport by seeing its traffic increase by 21% during the same four-year period. Along with Johannesburg and Cape Town, Durban (+15%), Port Elizabeth (+25%), East London (23%), George (+30%) and Kimberley (+18%) have also registered double-digit growth in the same time.  

George reporting best month-on-month growth

Although East London was South Africa’s best airport for traffic growth in 2016, when looking at the past few years, it is George which is reporting the best month-on-month developments. In 2012 George welcomed over 560,000 passengers, while last year it saw 727,000. That means in the past four years traffic from George has grown by nearly 30%, with the airport registering an average month-on-month increase of 9.4% over the past 36 months.

Source: airports.co.za

East London has registered an average month-on-month increase in traffic of 8.1%, meaning it is third when it comes to growth, with Port Elizabeth beating it to second with an average monthly gain of 8.3%. Upington, which welcomed over 179,000 passengers in 2016 has seen the most erratic growth, with traffic up 41% last month, while March 2016 saw the airport record a drop in traffic of 25%. Its average monthly increase during the past 36 months is 3.2%. 

Domestic market climbs past 70% market share once again

Having witnessed a growth in seat capacity of 7.1% over the past 12 months, South Africa’s domestic market remains its number one sector. The domestic market passed the 70% market share level last year, the first time it has done so since 2009. After South Africa, the UAE is the nation’s largest international market (3.7% of seat capacity), with it having overtaken the UK back in 2012. 

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser data.

Of the largest country markets, two of the top 12 have seen capacity shrink during the past decade, with seats to Germany and Zambia down 8.5% and 5.9% respectively during the past 10-year period. Of the top 12, the best performing market in relation to growth is Qatar, with seats to Doha up by 460% since 2007. During the past 10 years, seat capacity from South Africa has risen by over 25%. The nation is currently connected to 43 country markets. This total is nine less than the 52 country markets that were on offer in 2007. 

International capacity up 28%

Since 2007 international seat capacity to South Africa has grown by 28%, despite the number of non-stop markets dropping, with the country last year registering over 8.6 million one-way non-South African seats. The average year-on-year increase in seats in the international market during the past decade is 2.9%. 

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser data.

The leading international market is the UAE, which has seen its seat capacity grow by 15% since 2007. It is also the only international nation which has over one million one-way seats from South Africa. Although it sits in second place, the UK market has seen developments during the past few years. British Airways introduced the A380 onto its route between London Heathrow and Johannesburg, as well as it and Thomas Cook Airlines launching flights from London Gatwick to Cape Town during the past few months. The country pairing of UK-South Africa will develop further in 2018 when Thomas Cook links Manchester to Cape Town. 

Three long-haul markets dropped 

Since 2015, routes to Thailand, India and Argentina have been dropped from South Africa’s route map. Thai Airways ended its route between Bangkok Suvarnabhumi and Johannesburg in January 2015, while on 28 March that year South African Airways halted its three times weekly operation between Johannesburg and Mumbai. South African Airways ended its route from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires Ezeiza on 4 January 2015, a connection it also operated three times weekly. 

While these three markets have been dropped, South Africa has welcomed Spain back to its connections board. On 2 August last year Iberia linked Madrid to Johannesburg, the first link between the two nations that has operated since 2012. 

South Africa route map January 2017. Since 2015 routes to India, Argentina and Thailand have been lost, while last year welcomed the return of Spain to the nation’s connections board after a four-year hiatus. Overall South Africa is connected to 43 country markets, down from 52 in 2007.


  1. James says:

    Thanks for a great report on SA airports! However these stats are from ACSA, which was not all correct when published, only corrected today. It also is only showing ACSA operated airports, while there are others which fits in between in size, Lanseria (HLA) (Johannesburg’s second airport) will probably be number 4 airport with between 1,5-2 million pax. Also Nelspruit-Kruger (MQP) will be busier than KIM and probably Pietermaritzburg (PZB), Hoedspruit (HDS) and maybe RichardsBay (RCB) busier than UTN.

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