On 14 May, 2020, Delta announced that it would retire its fleet of 18 Boeing 777 aircraft at the end of 2020. Being that Delta deployed the Boeing 777-200LR on its service between Atlanta and Johannesburg before it was suspended in March, 2020, the announcement elicited fears that Delta might axe the route due to low demands occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. However fresh facts have emerged indicating that Delta will retain the route but with a new routing. It's not yet clear when the route will be resumed. But when it does return, it'll be operated by Airbus A350-900 and linked to Cape Town. Atlanta-Johannesburg-Cape Town-Atlanta will be the new routing. And this is why.
At 7,333 nmi and lasting up to 17 hours, the Johannesburg-Atlanta sector is Delta's longest flight and the 10th longest flight in the world. It is also the longest flight out of Johannesburg Airport. When the Boeing 777s are retired by the end of the year, Delta will be left with the Airbus A350-900 as its flagship long haul aircraft. While Delta's top 3 longest flights are operated by the Boeing 777-200LR, the Airbus A350-900 operates its 4th longest flight. And with a listed range of 8,100 nmi, the Airbus A350-900 has enough range to fly the Atlanta-Johannesburg-Atlanta route. But there is a snag.
Currently, Delta's Airbus A350-900s are being delivered as the standard variant with a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 268 tons. At that MTOW, the A350-900 may not be able fly the Atlanta-Johannesburg route without taking a hit. And here is the problem. The issue with Johannesburg is not just about the length of the route.
Johannesburg Airport is located at an altitude of 5,558 feet above sea level, making it a hot and high airport. And because of the hot and high conditions of the airport, it's challenging for aircraft on ultra long haul flights to take off with full payload. Even the upgraded A350-900 variant with a higher MTOW of 280 tons will take a hit out of Johannesburg. This is why Delta's A350-900 will need the Cape Town stop to refuel for the return flight to Atlanta. While this might be a little inconveniencing for passengers that prefer non-stop flights, there are some advantages.
What's In For Passengers?
The Airbus A350-900 will be a game changer with respect to passenger experience. Although it has narrower cabin than the Boeing 777-200LR, it'll offer more passenger-pleasing features on that route. Quieter cabins, lower cabin altitude, higher humidity and smoother ride are some of the features the A350 offers.
In addition to the generic features, Delta's A350-900s are also fitted with the airline's new travel classes - Delta One, Delta Select and Main Cabin for a total of 306 seats. If Delta retains this configuration, it'll mean that the A350-900 will carry 15 more passengers than the Boeing 777-200LR which carries 291 passengers including 37 in business class and 218 in economy class.
Operationally, the A350 will burn 21% less fuel per seat than the Boeing 777, therefore helping Delta to reduce the operational costs on that route. At face value, this should translate to cheaper ticket prices for the benefit of passengers. In addition to allowing Delta operate more profitably to South Africa, the new connection to Cape Town will give Delta customers a new opportunity to experience the beauty of Cape Town.
When Delta resumes service to Johannesburg and Cape Town, it won't be the only American airline flying to the mother city. In December, 2019, United Airlines launched non-stop seasonal service between Newark and Cape Town using the Boeing 787-9 aircraft. That service is also currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While Delta's stop in Cape Town will be essentially technical, it'll be an opportunity to try to steal passengers from United Airlines which flies non-stop to the Mother City.