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Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Rise of African Aviation

A recent piece argues that despite lacklustre safety records and incomplete liberalisation, air travel in Africa is showing signs of taking off. This does appear to the case - we are beginning to see African airlines now competing in the long haul market (where returns are high). African airlines are acquiring new widebody airliners at a greater rate than the global airline average. Last year, 32 per cent of African airline demand was for widebodies, as against 23 per cent for the global industry. This has led to new routes. In 2006, there were only 32 weekly flights involving just eight city pairs between the whole of Africa and the USA. By last year, these figures had jumped to 67 weekly flights between 14 city pairs. And a lot of these flights were by African airlines. An area for expansion is Europe - Africa pair where European legacy carriers continue to dominate through restriction of appropriate land slots and lobbying African governments at the expense of African carriers. Unfortunately, the article does not touch on these issues - but still worth a read. 

On July 8 2011 a Hewa Bora Airways aircraft, operated by a private Congolese company, crashed in bad weather after missing the runway at Kisangani airport, killing 127 people. Although blacklisted by the EU and the US, Hewa Bora had long been considered the best of the DRC’s airlines, but this means little in a country which holds the world record for aircraft crashes.

Events such as this add to the already tarnished image of African airlines and it is commonly agreed by industry professionals and observers that safety must be the first priority for the development of African aviation. Beyond the negative public image, surprising results and optimism characterise the African air travel sector, which is growing at well above the world average with an estimated annual growth of 6 to 7% for the next 15 years. The sector is also undergoing major changes in its regulation, just as an increasing number of players have moved in to attempt to benefit from the opportunities of this growing market. Air travel is the number one transport mode for international travel in Africa but it is still the case that 70% of the traffic between Africa and the rest of the world is carried on non-African airlines.

The main drivers in the growth of air traffic are the rise of an African middle class who travel for personal reasons, and an increase in business trips, particularly relating to the oil sector. The International Air Travel Association (IATA) reports that “increasing trade and investment links with Asia helped boost the Africa to Far East market, with growth of 17% in premium travel during the year and 21% growth in economy travel”, while the weakening links with Europe are reflecting this change in trade structure. However, growth is not guaranteed. For example, travel to North Africa has fallen in the last few months due to the continued political unrest. Royal Air Maroc, Tunisair and Afriqiyah Airways are struggling as a result.

As passenger numbers rise, airfreight also continues to grow in importance, with figures from July 2011 showing 8.4% growth from 2010. This is a considerable rise and even compares favourably with the excellent results of the Middle East. The air freight market is showing signs of renewed expansion in relation to the increasing trade with Asia, largely fostered by oil and ore exports and imports of telecommunication equipment, machinery, pharmaceuticals and manufactured goods. According to Boeing’s Market Outlook “West Africa, buoyed by foreign interest in petroleum development, shows the strongest growth on the continent”, although some concerns have emerged that the 2011 freight growth forecast may have been overestimated.

The African air travel sector started its transformation in 1999 with the signatures of 44 countries paving the way for a pan-African treaty for the liberalisation, deregulation and opening up of regional air transport markets. More than ten years later the ideals of what is now known as the Yamoussoukro Decision are still only partially achieved, and few countries have truly proven their commitment, among them Uganda and Togo.

These first steps toward an “open sky” policy in Africa were followed by positive changes: large companies took over small airlines and concentrated in main hubs before developing subsidiary companies or partnerships to create more complete networks. Partnerships, working in more isolated regions, were responsible for increasing the passenger flow to larger airports in order to benefit the main airlines. A good example is the Lomé-based Asky Airlines, launched in January 2010 and taking advantage of the liberalisation of the Togolese sector. A subsidiary company of Ethiopian Airlines, Asky now covers 19 destinations and its directors have already announced very satisfying results.

In Uganda the open policy has resulted in the continued growth of air services in both passengers and cargo: the freight sector experienced a 42.7% increase in 2011 despite the fact that the Ugandan national carrier was closed down by the government.

This strategy of opening markets has led to growth but has also had some considerable drawbacks. Small African carriers have multiplied, leading to a decrease in travel prices for passengers, which in turn has weakened airlines which have to bear unchanged high operating cost. Liberalisation has also led companies to neglect non-profitable travel lines which deprives isolated zones of air transport.

With a shortage of sub-Saharan hubs, African flights often have to stop in European airports despite a strong demand for non-stop routes between Africa and other continents. Direct intra-Africa flights between some major cities are still impossible or overpriced.

The issue of access to the air market is particularly relevant in Africa where almost one-third of countries on the continent are landlocked and road transportation is still slow and unreliable due to geographic specificities, political instabilities and a lack of infrastructures. In Nigeria, for example, air travel is by far the easiest way to go between Lagos and Abuja, in the absence of high quality, safe and fast roads or a functioning rail network. Air traffic is a potentially valuable lever for both local and international economic activities. Trade in Africa is highly sensitive to transportation cost and some reports have estimated that a 10% reduction in transport costs could increase trade by 25%.

A fast transport system is crucial for production strategies concerning perishable goods, such as the Kenyan cut flower industry. Exportation of cut flowers, mainly to Europe, represents one of the country’s largest industries and is its second biggest foreign exchange generator. Other time-sensitive and high-value exports such as exotic fruits, seafood or meat also rely heavily on fast and reliable transport at a global scale.

Despite the importance of efficiency, it is widely admitted that the current priority for a reliable air transport sector in Africa must be safety. It has been proven that “poor safety oversight results in more expensive insurance premiums and the inability to develop code sharing and other business arrangements. It also scares away potentially high-yield international customers and potential private sector investors”. African airlines have to improve on several key points such as the age of their fleets, ground level infrastructure and training and maintenance. Where infrastructure is concerned, regional differences appear between North Africa - where 60% of the airports were found to be in excellent condition by a World Bank report in 2009, and sub-Saharan Africa, where only 17% received the same score. Training is a crucial element in this, and many African airports often fail not only in the quality of their training but in their ability to retain qualified workers attracted by lucrative Middle Eastern job offers.

In countries where the road, railway and port infrastructure does not offer efficient transportation, air transport represents a great potential lever for development. Despite liberalisation policies being only partially implemented, the African air sector is showing encouraging results.

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