Toasting a hard-working 70-year-old

Amid the sobering statistics of slowed economic growth and declining investment and consumer spending, one South African company this month marks 70 years of uninterrupted, profitable operation in one of the toughest market sectors. It’s also in the midst of a R10bn fleet upgrade.

Comair Limited – with its roots in a conversation among three South African Air Force pilots in the Egyptian desert after World War Two – has evolved into a JSE-listed regional airline and travel business serving over 5.5 million customers a year. It’s South Africa’s longest-operating airline after the national carrier, a feat achieved without the luxury of Treasury bail-outs. It’s also believed to be the only airline in the world to have recorded a profit in every year of its operation.

Comair CEO Erik Venter says: “Airlines aren’t an easy business and the recipe for long-term success demands innovation, leadership and a commitment to service.”

“An essential ingredient has been on building strong, lasting partnerships, such as our franchise agreement with British Airways Plc., established 20 years ago. It also requires innovation, for example, that of southern Africa’s first low-fares airline and one of South Africa’s biggest online retailers,, launched by Comair in 2001. has made air-travel accessible to many who couldn’t otherwise afford it.”

“Success also requires that you’re willing to grasp opportunities and invest in achieving them. Doing so has led Comair to establish its SLOW Lounge network, the Food Directions catering service, and Comair Travel.” (EDITORS: SEE DETAILS BELOW)

Comair is investing R10 billion to replace its current fleet of 737-300 and 737-400 aircraft and recently took delivery of its seventh new Boeing 737-800 Next Generation aircraft, as part of the airline’s ongoing fleet upgrade. The arrival of the eighth and final aircraft of this particular order is scheduled for delivery in November 2016.

In 2014 Comair announced an order for eight Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. The aircraft are scheduled for delivery from 2019 through 2021 and will result in Comair operating South Africa’s newest and most modern and efficient fleet. The new aircraft are fitted with Sabre Airline Solutions technology, which significantly reduce fuel consumption.

Venter adds: “The acquisition of these new aircraft is a strong indicator of our confidence in the region’s leisure and business travel and underpins the customer-centric nature of all aspects of our business, such as the lounges, catering and travel. It’s an approach that’s worked for seven decades and on which we’ll remained focused.

Venter adds that the aviation industry worldwide is recognised for its operating challenges: “It’s an industry that’s capital intensive, has small profit margins and of necessity is highly regulated.

“Poor return on investments, protected competition, low barriers to entry and status associated with owning an airline are a few of the common denominators to airlines internationally. It’s an industry that’s a soft target for taxes, with volatile costs, and labour issues as well as increased regulation.”

“In South Africa, volatile exchange-rates and rising fuel-prices require airlines to constantly innovate and improve on operating efficiency”, says Venter.

He concludes that Comair’s priorities for achieving those objectives include constant focus on customer service, controlling costs and increasing business efficiencies. “We’ve adopted a similar approach taken by successful airlines world-wide, of acquiring and operating larger but more fuel efficient aircraft as well as implementing new generation Information Technology platforms delivering efficiency and commercial opportunities.”

More about the Comair business

Food Directions was launched in 2012 as Comair’s very own on-board catering unit. Incorporating in-house catering not only improved cost control but also enabled both British Airways Comair and to provide customers with fresh, top quality in-flight meals.

The Comair Training Centre is adjacent to OR Tambo International Airport and provides operations training for the Boeing B737-2/3/4/5/800 series for both local and international flight deck aircrew, cabin crew and flight operations personnel.  Comair and Holland-based Multi Pilot Simulations (MPS) have also agreed on the delivery of an MPS B737-NG FTD1 Fixed Base Simulators to Comair’s Training Centre (CTC). This FTD will greatly assist Comair in its training growth and the ability to improve young pilot quality and the transformation of the local airline sector.

SLOW Lounges provide a sanctuary from the fast pace of travel and modern life and set a global standard for airports, consistently winning awards for the quality of its offering. Comair operates the facilities in partnership with FNB and RMB Private Bank. The first domestic SLOW Lounge was launched at OR Tambo International in 2009, followed closely by the domestic SLOW Lounges at Cape Town and Durban International Airports 2010 and 2011 respectively. Shortly after that, the brand’s reputation spread and the city of Sandton saw the opening of SLOW in the City.

Comair Travel: In 2007, after investing in world leading technology that could deliver innovative travel to consumers and travel agencies in South Africa, Comair launched its travel and holiday packages. Through acquisition, expansion and partnerships, Comair has established the country’s largest and broadest digital travel distribution network. Its brands include:

  • kulula holidays
  • Holiday Tours
  • GoTravel24
  • Mtbeds
  • African Dream Holidays
  • Harvey World Travel – Holiday Travel
  • African Images

British Airways operated by Comair: In 1996, Comair joined British Airways as a franchise partner, taking on the colours and livery of British Airways International. The British Airways brand brought with it a rich heritage of stylish travel, reputation for service excellence and a wide range of products such as the prestigious Executive Club frequent flyer programme.

As franchise partner of British Airways and a member of the oneworld alliance, Comair offers seamless connections to the international route network and continues to serve local premium customers with the same standards in mind. In 2001, South Africa’s first no-frills carrier, was launched. The name kulula is derived from the Zulu language meaning ‘easily’. As Comair continues to position as more than just an airline but rather an entire travel experience, the brand aims to provide customers with the easiest way to book, the easiest way to pay and above all, the easiest to afford.