Africa’s Airliners Aim to Connect to the Continent to the World

As an overseer of all security for U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world, Ken Payumo must make at least one stop each year in seven sub-Saharan African countries, from Liberia to South Sudan. When booking flights, he has several choices — none of them pretty.

To fly to the Central African Republic from Chad — neighboring countries — Payumo has to pick up a flight from Chad’s capital N’Djamena to Paris, then from Paris to Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic. Sometimes, Royal Air Maroc comes through with just a layover in Casablanca. But once in-country and ready to return to the U.S., it’s a “hodgepodge” of options, according to Payumo: Air Maroc again from Bangui to Casablanca to Paris, before he can fly into JFK. Or a two-stop flight to Newark, New Jersey, on Ethiopian Air for $1,300 — if he’s lucky.

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That may finally change. Encouraged by the International Air Transport Association and the African Union, executives of African airlines are gaining ground against the red tape, high taxes and political meddling that have long held back the industry’s growth on the continent. The Single African Air Transport Market, a flagship African Union project, would allow airlines to fly intra-African routes based on economic and financial considerations, draw in potential cross-border investment and enable the free movement of Africans across the continent through visa reforms. Roadblocks remain, but there’s early evidence that the plan isn’t just a pie in the sky.

The African Union is soon expected to renew a push to implement the 1999 Yamoussoukro Decision — the key driver of the SAATM — which promotes competitive pricing, lifts capacity and frequency restraints, and permits “fifth freedom flights” that span at least three countries. Already, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and South African Airways — the continent’s most successful – have successfully promoted fifth freedom flights in sub-Saharan Africa. And a total of 550 new airplanes to Africa are expected for delivery over the next 20 years, including 300 large, regional jets and 250 small, single-aisle aircraft.

“Success can be measured in the number of international airport connections served by multistop flights in Africa,” says Heinrich C. Bofinger, a senior transport economist with the World Bank Group who has worked on air transport in Africa. “The fifth freedom route model has become the keystone of the development of services by key African airlines — and the cornerstone strategy of some newcomers.”

Because other modes of travel are even harder, air travel has long been recognized as the most efficient transportation mode in Africa; early in decolonization, the continent had its share of airlines that gained tremendous market penetration. Air Afrique, a 1960 partnership between several African countries and Air France, served all of Francophone Africa from its headquarters in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, until 2002, when debts forced it into bankruptcy. Nigeria Airways, also one of decolonized Africa’s first airlines, survived from 1958 until 2003. Since the turn of the century, individual countries such as Ghana, Mali and Senegal in the West and Uganda in the East have aimed to establish viable national carriers under public-private partnerships, but have hit regulatory turbulence.

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The airline market in Africa, and recognition of the potential for profit, have grown dramatically. Just over 10 million airline seats in Africa were offered in 2001 — 14 years later, that number more than doubled to 22.7 million and linked more African cities than ever before, according to the World Bank Group. Experts say air traffic on the continent will grow by an annual average of 5.1 percent in the next 18 years, outpacing the global projected average of 4.7 percent. “Where there is demand, service providers will appear,” Bofinger says.

Yet most sub-Saharan airlines are losing money to the heavily bankrolled Arab airlines, such as Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways and Emirates, according to the International Air Transport Association. Of Africa’s big three carriers, only Ethiopian Airlines posted a profit last year, while Kenya Airways and South African Airways suffered losses. Some African countries still limit the growth of airlines through taxation and costs, and the IATA wants governments “to pass laws or enact policies that encourage airlines to develop,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA director general and CEO, recently told New Era, Zambia’s national newspaper.

The air transport sector is also still seen by many African governments as a “way to show technical accomplishment and skill,” says Bofinger. “The notion of the national flag carrier is still deeply ingrained in the politics of the air transport sector,” he says, and many governments remain reluctant to fully privatize airlines. They instead adopt policies that may not be financially sustainable, Bofinger says.

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Safety, security and infrastructure also remain concerns. In 2013, the continent carried just 3 percent of global air traffic, but accounted for roughly 20 percent of the 29 accidents and 265 fatalities of commercial passenger planes worldwide. This traditionally high rate of accidents and fatalities largely has to do with the absorption of older Soviet-made aircraft, as well as the lack of independent regulatory agencies, says Elijah Chingosho of the African Airlines Association, a trade organization. The bigger airports like Addis Ababa and Nairobi lack the efficiency, effectiveness and entertainment they need to be called “gateways” for the continent, says Payumo — though Bofinger cautions against countries building grandiose airports assuming their cities are going to emerge as the next Shanghai-style hubs.

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Not all these challenges are likely to evaporate anytime in the near future. But the booming demand, growing spunk shown by African airlines, the support they are receiving from bodies like the IATA, and the Pan-African reforms on the anvil promise a better future.

The new planes the major airlines are purchasing will reduce dependence on the outdated Soviet ones. And along with freeing up cross-border transport, the SAATM would establish a program to audit airlines safety and emergency features.

The green shoots of improvement are visible. In 2016, Africa did not record a single safety-related fatal airline accident. “Travelers will only patronize African airlines if safety standards are up to global standards,” says Chingosho. “The effort by various stakeholders to enhance a safety culture is yielding positive results.”

  • Adrian Brune, OZY Author