African Aviation: Ready for Take Off Once Again

African Aviation: Ready for Take Off Once Again

The African aviation industry, like its counterparts around the world, has endured a tumultuous pandemic. Losses in revenue and traffic, as well as uncertainty about future prospects, have pushed some airlines to the brink of collapse and beyond. Yet, other operators have seized the opportunities presented, and the sector’s ambitions have never been higher.

The impact of COVID-19 and the travel restrictions imposed to stem the spread of disease on the African aviation sector makes for grim reading. The African Airlines Association (AFRAA) states that revenue for African carriers fell by $8 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, the African Development Bank (AfDB) reports that of the 7 million jobs in the continent’s aviation and tourism-industry sectors, over 70% were lost. With air traffic falling by nearly 90%, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), it is perhaps inevitable that some airlines would succumb to the pressures. Among them was Air Namibia, after 70 years of service, which filed for bankruptcy in February 2021. More recently, it has been reported that the Kenyan treasury has rejected a bailout of Kenya Airways, possibly condemning the country’s national carrier to collapse after reporting losses of over $104 million in the 6 months to June 2021. However, from these ashes, it cannot be denied that African aviation is in the midst of rising, phoenix-like, back to the skies.

South African Aviation Reclaiming The Skies

While Air Namibia may have been permanently grounded, South Africa’s aviation sector proffers a far more optimistic outlook. Despite economic woes and the COVID-19 pandemic, the rainbow nation’s flagship carrier, South African Airlines (SAA), was seeking a return to the skies on the 23rd of September 2021, with ambitions to expand beyond a range of regional destinations as the market stabilises. Meanwhile AirLink, a smaller South African operator, was able to take advantage of Air Namibia’s collapse and seize some of the newly available routes. Alongside these new ventures, AirLink’s prospects have been bolstered by a codesharing arrangement signed between the South African airline and Emirates, promising what has been described as “connectivity to Emirates customers not offered by any other carrier in Africa…competitive fares, combined ticketing, and seamless baggage transfers”. That such a deal should go ahead, under the present conditions, is a significant indicator of the strength and vitality present in the South African aviation arena.

East African Aviation Spreading Its Wings

The wider East African aviation landscape has also shown promising signs of adapting and reinventing itself for the demands of the post COVID-19 world. Along with relaunching direct flights between Uganda and South Africa after a two-decade hiatus, Uganda Airlines (UA) has also been securing interline arrangements with two Tanzanian carriers, Air Tanzania Company Limited and Precision Air, to streamline the process of baggage handling and aid intra-regional travel. Beyond the corporate negotiations however, there have also been demonstrations of key political will and drive to reform the sector.

In a meeting at the end of August, ministers for Transport and Communication from across the regional East African Community (EAC) set in motion plans to harmonise air travel policies among member-states, and bring down the cost of some of the world’s most expensive air travel. In a region wherein costs of flying are inflated by almost 50% by high regulations and taxes, efforts made to bring such expenses into some form of parity could herald huge dividends for EAC countries. A recent report by the East African Business Council claimed that the impact of liberalising air travel, reducing fares, and encouraging more frequent usage of the regional carriers, whether for business or leisure, “could result in an additional 46,320 jobs and $202.1 million per annum in GDP” for the region. Streamlining and reining in the myriad taxes and charges would therefore be a huge boon for the economy of a region so dependent on tourism.

Flying Too Close To The Sun?

The post-pandemic African aviation recovery is not guaranteed. A key constraint will be the rate of vaccination across the continent, so long as inoculations remain the key to populations being permitted to travel once again. Delays in the supply of COVID vaccines to Africa, originally sourced primarily from India, means that at the time of writing, only 3% of Africans are fully vaccinated. As countries begin administering booster shots to maintain levels of protection against new possible strains, there is a significant risk that African supplies of vaccine will remain limited. This would severely, and detrimentally, impact the resurgence in travel and tourism necessary to restore African aviation’s fortunes.

To survive, airlines will need to learn the lessons of their more successful counterparts. Ethiopian Airlines, long African aviation’s poster-child, for example, was the first to convert the Airbus A350 from a passenger carrier to a cargo-plane, foreseeing the slump in passenger traffic and the vital necessity for freight transport during the pandemic. In the case of Kenya Airlines, which has converted two of its Boeing 787 Dreamliners to carry cargo, only time will tell whether the transition came quickly enough. Elsewhere other airlines, including UA, are seeking to follow suit by diversifying their fleets and routes to augment their resilience and chances of survival.

In weathering future storms, African aviation will need to focus as much on collaboration as on competition. When Zambia Airways returns to the skies on September the 30th, it will do so with Ethiopian having provided the aircraft in its fleet, training for Zambia’s pilots and crews, in return for a 45% stake. Malawi Airlines currently operates with Ethiopian owning a 49% stake. Elsewhere, Ghana and Egypt have agreed to cooperate in relaunching a Ghanaian national carrier. If the continent’s airlines can master this combination of rebalanced business models, streamlining regulations, and strategic partnerships, then the sky truly is the limit, especially as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) drives opportunities for intra-African trade and travel to unprecedented heights.

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