THERE'S nothing quite like the threat of increased competition to inspire lower fares and improved services on airlines.

Travellers to South Africa have benefited more than most over the last year with the arrival of new carriers keen to secure a foothold in a market with real money-spinning potential. British Airways and South African Airways, the established operators out of the UK, have increased departures, upgraded their quality of service and slashed fares since the South African government opened its skies to other carriers.

They aim to counter bargain basement fares offered by upstarts such as Air Namibia - and to nip in the bud Richard Branson's African ambitions. It is now possible to fly between London and Johannesburg for as little as pounds 419 return on a discounted Olympic Airways ticket.

Air Namibia is competing against new direct non-stop services, but has entered the fray with some aggressive prices. Cheap flight agencies are offering a Heathrow-Windhoek-Johannes burg return ticket valid until the end of November (excluding travel in August) for pounds 450. Air Namibia also offers a Thursday evening Heathrow departure, although that takes the scenic route via Frankfurt.

Another option which some will find more convenient than departing from London or Manchester is to fly from their local airport to Amsterdam to catch a KLM flight to South Africa. The Dutch carrier operates four non-stop flights a week to Johannesburg and two to Cape Town. The cheapest return ticket is around pounds 500, which is marginally less than booking a direct BA or SAA discounted ticket.

Gayle MacMillan of Trailfinders, the flight specialists, believes many travellers to South Africa consider it worth paying a little extra for the convenience of flying direct non-stop with a carrier boasting an established reputation for service and reliability. 'You will save money flying with one of the indirect airlines, but the saving is not really that great and the overall journey time is longer,' she says.

BA and SAA's lowest return fares start at under pounds 600 for travel between now and the end of May. However, these are available through some ticket agencies for as little as pounds 517, rising to pounds 765 at Christmas. There is no need to pre-book and the tickets are valid for stays of between seven and 180 days. SAA also has youth fares, with a saving of 50 per cent for children aged 2-11 and a 33 per cent reduction for those aged 12-17.

A bonus for those travelling from Manchester or from London to Cape Town is that all UK-South Africa fares are now common rated. Passengers flying Heathrow-Cape Town used to pay around pounds 150 more than those going to Johannesburg.

'These new common rated fares have certainly stimulated traffic to Cape Town, which has always been a particularly popular destination for UK travellers,' claims Keith Beswick, director of the specialist long-haul agency, Quest Worldwide.

While admitting that first and business class carryings were down last year, British Airways claims its South African routes showed an overall growth of 7 per cent. BA now operates nine non-stop services a week using new 747-400 aircraft between Heathrow and Johannesburg, with one continuing to Cape Town and two to Durban. A tenth service goes direct to Cape Town.

The airline is investing heavily in its South Africa operation in the hope of netting high dividends when the country is able to realise its enormous tourism potential.

Both BA and SAA are acknowledged as offering a good business class product to South Africa. The published return fare is pounds 1,835, though this is available at a discounted pounds 1,605. Better value is a half-

price spouse fare for couples travelling business class together. Cheaper still is Air Namibia's pounds 989 discounted return business class fare to Johannesburg or Cape Town via Windhoek.

One airline the others are watching is Virgin Atlantic, which aborted its attempt to launch a South Africa route last November. 'We were not frightened off by the political situation, or by BA and SAA's announcement of some very startling fares in the month we were due to launch,' says Virgin's route planning director Ed Hullah. 'There simply were no slots available at Heathrow . . . We still want to operate to South Africa, though nothing is likely to happen until next year at the earliest.'