South African Airways has axed all international flights, including its daily service between Perth and Johannesburg, in response to a government travel ban aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
The cancellations take "immediate effect", the airline says, and will last until 31 May 2020, although an extension of that can't be ruled out.
SAA's sole remaining route will be a domestic shuttle between Johannesburg and Cape Town.
However, there is already speculation that the embattled airline – beset by financial woes long before the outbreak of Covid-19 – might never return to Perth.
South Africa’s government placed SAA into a local form of bankruptcy protection late last year, a move designed to end a cycle of state bailouts and mounting losses, and last month made US$1 billion available to the carrier to help service debt while a turnaround plan was developed.
Routes were already being cut before the coronavirus outbreak was declared a global pandemic, with South African Finance Minister Tito Mboweni stating that the government’s aim is to turn the national flag-carrier into “a sustainable airline that is not a burden" rather than close it down.
Qantas has long eyed the Perth-Johannesburg route, with Executive Traveller revealing in April 2018 the airline's plans to launch a direct flight running four times a week on an Airbus A330 jet, alongside its long-established Sydney-Johannesburg Boeing 747 service.
Qantas later confirmed its intentions, saying it would begin with "a seasonal service" from November 2018 to test the waters, but later scrapped those plans due to an ongoing stoush with Perth Airport over which terminal the service would use.
Perth Airport had insisted that Qantas use the main international T1 terminal for the seasonal service to South Africa, while Qantas wanted to run the flights from the newly-developed international wing of its T3 terminal, which is also used by the airline's Boeing 787 flights to London as well as a daily service to Singapore, as well as streamlining connections for Qantas' domestic passengers.
"We had planned to operate a seasonal service this November to March, which would have put about 4,000 passengers a week through Perth," Alison Webster, then-CEO of Qantas International, told Executive Traveller in June 2018.
"We couldn’t operate it through Terminal 3 where the aircraft would in fact come in (from a domestic flight) and turn around, and towing (from T1) would make it completely logistically not okay."