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A United 787-9 in San Francisco (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

United Airlines Eyes Washington D.C. to Cape Town Service

In an application with the Department of Transportation, United Airlines filed for the rights to fly between Washington-Dulles and Cape Town, South Africa, with its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. If accepted, these flights will commence around November 17, 2022, with thrice-weekly services on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

The proposed flight would depart Washington-Dulles at 6:30 P.M. and arrive in Cape Town at 4:15 P.M. the following day. The flight would return from Cape Town at 9 P.M. and arrive in Washington-Dulles at 6 A.M the next day. These flights would operate year-round with “seasonal flexibility to adjust capacity to potential fluctuations in demand.”

United Airlines touts its ability to offer multiple services to South Africa, including its flights from Newark/New York to Johannesburg, South Africa and Cape Town, South Africa. With both flights to Cape Town, the Chicago-based carrier proposes a combination of near-daily services to Cape Town. In total, United Airlines would enhance consumer access to 45 destinations, serving nearly 90 percent of all U.S. to Cape Town demand. From Cape Town, United Airlines’ passengers can experience further connectivity via a codeshare with Airlink and access 15 destinations in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

United Airlines would add its fifth service from the United States to the continent of Africa and add its third African service from Washington-Dulles. In 2021, the carrier improved its connectivity to West Africa by adding flights from Washington-Dulles to Accra, Ghana and Lagos, Nigeria, on its Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner. United Airlines hopes to intensify its competition on Delta Airlines, the largest U.S. carrier to Africa and the incumbent carrier to Africa.

Washington-Dulles would receive its first service to Cape Town, South Africa. In the past, South African Airways operated a daily nonstop service between Washington-Dulles and Johannesburg, before converting the flight into a Johannesburg to Dakar, Senegal to Washington-Dulles routing. Later, South African Airways changed the routing with a stop either in Dakar or Accra and suspended the route in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

United Airlines plans to operate the 257-seat Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner from Cape Town to Washington D.C. This aircraft features 48 Polaris Business class seats, 21 Premium Plus seats, 39 Economy Plus seats and 149 economy class seats.

Competition with Delta Air Lines

Similarly, Delta Airlines applied for the rights for thrice-weekly flights between Atlanta and Cape Town in February 2022. These flights would commence on November 18, 2022, with 305-seat Airbus A350-900 service, supplementing existing service from Atlanta to Johannesburg. Delta Airlines would depart Atlanta at 8:45 P.M., arriving in Cape Town at 6:45 P.M. the following day. The aircraft would depart Cape Town at 9 P.M., arriving in Atlanta at 6:25 A.M. the next day. 

However, allocated flights between South Africa and the United States are limited, with only 21 frequencies, and there are currently only four frequencies available. Since both carriers are competing for frequencies, United Airlines replied to Delta Airlines’ application, claiming that Delta Air Lines’ proposal offers unpredictability and lacks vision. The airline cited that the Atlanta-based carrier terminated services in April 2020 due to the retirement of its Boeing 777-200LR, the aircraft most suitable for services to South Africa.

Earlier in 2020 and 2021, Delta Air Lines proposed a triangle route from Atlanta to Johannesburg to Cape Town to Atlanta, spurred out of the need to operate flights at a maximum payload on the Airbus A350. Later, this proposal was rejected by the South African Government, and now, Delta Airlines connects Atlanta and Johannesburg nonstop.

In a reply to Delta Air Lines, United Airlines proposed that if Delta Air Lines agrees, each carrier should split the frequencies, so that each airline receives two each. Therefore, this leaves the Department of Transportation with the opportunity to grant rights to either Delta Air Lines or United Airlines or split the frequencies between both carriers.


  • Winston Shek

    Ever since Winston was a toddler, he has always had a fascination for airplanes. From watching widebodies land at Washington Dulles to traveling the world, Winston has always had his eyes towards the skies. Winston began aviation photography in 2018 and now posts his photos occasionally on his Instagram account. He previously wrote for a blog. In his free time, Winston loves to play chess, do recreational activities, and watch sports. Looking into the future, Winston plans to service the aviation industry.

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