Africans make up 12% of the world’s population but only 2.5% of the world’s passengers.
Today, Africa accounts for a mere 2.2% of global air transport traffic (IATA 2017), a number that is wildly disproportional, considering the African continent’s sheer size, tourism potential, importance of stress relief, and booming economic development in certain sovereigns. The continent has 731 airports and 419 airlines with an aviation industry currently supporting 6.9 million jobs and 80 billion US dollars in economic activity. According to the International Air Transport Association, Africa is en route to becoming one of the fastest growing aviation regions before 2040, with a current annual market expansion of 5%. Yet, while it is evident that aviation in Africa has the potential to fuel economic growth on the continent, many obstacles lie ahead.
The Need for Competitive African airlines
The conditions for aviation companies to thrive in Africa are somewhat already in place. In many regions, roads and railways do not suffice, given the spread of the continent, necessitating both advanced infrastructure and a proliferation of the number of companies that can readily use this infrastructure. Africa’s geography, with deserted regions, diverse landforms, long distances between major cities, and isolated regions, is, simply put, ripe for the use of air transport. Geographical remoteness is typically a barrier to the exchange of goods, ideas, and people, a problem which could be eased by better access to air transport. The continent’s demographic boom, the increasing rate of urbanization, the growing young workforce, and middle-class development are also all promising indicators for African airlines. Moreover, the transport of perishable goods is expected to create an African “cargo-boom”, a sharp increase in the use of air cargo planes. This comes as good news for Ethiopian Airlines, given that cargo services account for 15% of its 2016 revenues, hopefully spurring it on to invest more heavily in its capabilities in this regard. Additionally, the relief support system required by some regions of Africa is highly dependent on air transport, further increasing ever-present demand for a company, or companies, that can deliver upon these needs. The tourism sector is also driving demand higher – the number of travelers to eastern Africa has doubled since 1999. African airlines, such as Ethiopian Airlines, are reacting by opening air routes especially useful for travelers wishing to see what the continent has to offer, connecting Cape Town to the Kenyan plains of Masa Mara, making travel easier, more comfortable, and more accessible.
Yet, Africa is still to develop a competitive model for a successful airline company. With 80% of Africa’s air transport traffic currently provided by foreign airlines, for African nations to reap the benefits of an expanding aviation market, they need to bump up their airlines’ competitiveness. The top ten African airlines that share most of the remaining 20% African air traffic market left by non-African airlines are Air Algeria, Air Mauritius, Arik Air, Egyptair, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, Royal Air Maroc, South African Airlines, TAGG Angola Airlines, and Tunis Air. The road to become competitive, however, is filled with barriers relating mostly to the regulation of the aviation industry.
Unwinding the Red Tape
The development of African airlines is closely linked to the historical, economic and cultural background of Africa, especially the continent’s colonial past, which shapes the modus operandi of today’s African airlines. For example, most African airlines are state-owned as, initially, airlines were a used as a political tool of newly independent African countries, giving them a sense of pride for their connection to the developed world. But at the same time, national airlines were often reduced to connecting the country to European hubs, mainly capitals within the former colonizer countries. Although this paradigm started shifting in the 1990’s, its legacy has not been erased.. An illustration of this phenomenon is the foundation of South African airlines in 1934, a period of inauguration of the self-governance political era. The first international route connected Johannesburg and London, starting in 1954. In 2006, South African Airlines joined Star Alliance, the largest global coalition of airlines companies. However, cooperation between African airlines remains poor. Still today, no direct flight exists to travel from Abidjan, a hub in West Africa, to Dar Es Salam, a hub in East Africa. Another, more observable reason for this is the heterogeneous regulation of air transport traffic across the continent.
Although several new policies were introduced to liberalize the intra-African aviation spaces, mainly following the Yamoussoukro decision (1999), excessive and non-coherent regulation of air transport in Africa is still an impairment to the airline business. Up to 2017, Mozambique’s national airline company held a monopoly on domestic flights. This lack of a single aviation market in Africa effectively channels the lion’s share of air routes to domestic or sub-regional flights. Liberalisation could bring large benefits – new routes, more frequent flights, better connections and lower fares. These improvements could also increase the number of passengers, which will have both direct and indirect positive effects on trade, business travel and tourism, enhancing the GDP of African countries and uplifting the welfare of ordinary Africans. According to an IATA survey, if just 12 key African countries opened their markets and increased connectivity, an extra 155,000 jobs and USD 1.3 billion in annual GDP would be created in those countries.
Moreover, most African airlines are reliant on state-owned airports, which are often more expensive than infrastructures elsewhere in the world. This is to say that it is more expensive to land in Nairobi than in London Heathrow. Yet, upgrading infrastructure and operations requires both investment and expertise, and these can be found in public-private partnerships. Africa, therefore, needs to open its doors for private capital investment in aviation infrastructure. Take the example of the Abidjan International Airport. In 1996, management and operation of the terminal in Côte d’Ivoire were privatized and awarded to AERIA, a French company.
Reality is, however, a little bit more complex than merely calling for deregulation to boost economic growth. Regulation also turns out to be a key competitive advantage for African airlines competent in this niche, such as Ethiopian Airlines. The company’s strength is its intra-African footprint, which is de facto off limits to overseas carriers due to the restrictive regulatory forces in place. Therefore, for African airlines to thrive in the years ahead, liberalisation of markets should be implemented in a way that would provide airlines like Ethiopian Airlines time to adapt to competition.
Another partial reason for lack of intra-continental flights is sparse demand for air travel in Africa. African air travel is still a prerogative of the wealthiest. Within each country, few can afford air transport, making most intra-African air routes hardly profitable. The map above illustrates that air transport in western and central Africa is scarcely provided, whilst eastern and southern Africa seem to be more successful. Some companies have profited from this sparse demand, such as the success of Ethiopian airlines, Kenyan Airlines and South African Airlines, which rely heavily on their local hubs. However, there are increasingly less intra-African routes, and combined with little to no competition, we get a nasty mix of high prices and inefficiency.
The price of fuel also proves to be problematic for African airlines. Landlocked African countries require transportation of fuel deliveries over long distances, thus implying additional costs to obtain kerosene – the juice that makes these engines run. Furthermore, African airlines tend to have fewer planes and, hence, have lower bargaining power when purchasing fuel.
The high costs associated with running African airlines ultimately hinder their competitiveness. Because of balance sheet shortcomings, South African Airways no longer sponsors Cape Town to London flights, leaving the whole market open to British Airways. Moreover, African budget airlines, such as Velvet Sky and 1time were forced to shut down due to financial problems and regulatory impediments. The lack of low-cost airlines is especially tragic in the African case, as they have great potential to improve the quality of life of an African population whose combined GDP amounts to a third of that of the United States.
Safety and a Lack of Skills
When it comes to safety, African airlines also face significant issues. The International Air Transport Association wrote in its 2006 safety report that, out of every million planes taking off in Africa, 4.31 become “unusable as a result of an accident.” Only the Confederation of Independent States, which includes Russia and ex-Soviet republics, does worse, at 8.6, according to IATA, which regulates international air transport. However, major carriers Kenya Airways, South African Airways, and Ethiopian Airlines have positive safety records. Yet, the industry as a whole needs to prioritize improving safety measures and major carriers need to disassociate themselves from the “unsafe” label bestowed upon them. Currently, many non-African travelers (tourists, businessmen, and others) are wary of flying on African airlines and favor well-known companies whose safety records tend to be better, even if they fetch a higher ticket price. Because safety comprises such a large portion of consumer confidence in the airline sector, African airlines face a large uphill battle in this regard.
Additionally, unskilled labor force is also a challenge for African airlines. To tackle this issue, but steps are being taken in the right direction. Ethiopian Air has heavily invested in human capital training by building a $100 million facility that now trains 4,000 personnel per year, thus providing a talent pipeline for decades to come.
Africa has great need and potential for an expanding aviation industry, but at the same time, many challenges strain the development of African airline companies. Excessive and non-coherent regulation, sparse demand, low infrastructure development, high costs, poor safety records and an unskilled labor force do not encourage the profitability of large African airlines and the growth of the market. However, there is hope for change in the right direction – the recent creation of Rwandair (2002) and its rapid extension now links the central African state of Rwanda to New York, Brussels, Kigali, Mumbai and Guangzhou through this national airline. The development of Rwandair points to a possible mentality-shift and provides new prospects for the African continent.
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