This paper investigates the claim that air transport development may be an engine for inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction in developing and emerging countries, using the example of South Africa, a country with high income inequality and rising air traffic volume. A social accounting matrix (SAM) model is adopted to assess the strengths of backward and forward linkages between the air transport sector and the local economy, and a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model is used to estimate the economy-wide impact of air transport expansion in South Africa. The results show that air transport has a significant effect on output, incomes and employment, and that its importance lies in its considerable backward linkage effects. Income and employment effects are found to be unevenly distributed in the economy, the biggest winners being households in the highest expenditure decile, as well as highly skilled labour. It is concluded that unless accompanied by improvements in education and training for low-skilled workers, air transport expansion may lead to a widening of income inequality in South Africa.