With huge distances between destinations and limited alternative transportation options available, the case for the bolstering of aviation in Africa is a strong one.
Yet, even pre-pandemic, air transportation in Africa, with the exception of a handful of key hubs, saw very slow growth – which directly impacted the travel and tourism industry, as without access – there is simply no opportunities to grow tourism. But could COVID, despite completely decimating the aviation industry, ultimately create an environment that will finally result in progress being made?
This was the topic of a panel discussion, in association with AVIADEV Africa, during Africa Travel Week Virtual, where aviation experts from across the continent weighed in on the challenges facing African air transportation – and the areas where government and the stakeholders could potentially aid the industry in its recovery.
There are three main challenges facing the industry, says Adefunke Adeyemi, Regional Director for Member & External Relations: Africa & Middle East for IATA. The first is connectivity, which even before the pandemic was hardly optimal with 970 city pairs in April, which dropped to 100 by April 2020. “There are still a lot of gaps, especially compared to places like Europe which is totally covered by flights. The result is a thriving domestic market that has transformed the socio-economic prospects of European people, which is what we would like to see happen in Africa,” she says.
The next challenge, says Adeyemi, is the financial survival of the industry. “The industry has been thoroughly decimated. The implications are that financially speaking, all the airlines around the world have taken a severe, devastating hit. Even those running a profitable business couldn’t cope with that quantum of loss,” she says, adding that conservative estimates put the total losses in African aviation somewhere between US$6 billion and US$10 billion with no quick recovery on the cards.
The final issue is the cost of aviation in Africa. Adeyemi says relative to average income throughout Africa, it would cost about two-and-a-half weeks’ salary to buy a regional ticket, and about seven weeks’ salary to travel outside of Africa. “This is simply not sustainable or affordable for the majority of Africans, especially compared to other regions where aviation is mass transportation,” she adds.
Echoing these sentiments was Hon. Najib Balala, Cabinet Secretary for Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, who pointed out that fares for intra-African travel were often exorbitant. “If a flight from Europe to Marrakech in Morocco costs US$50, why does it cost US$2000 to fly from Nairobi to Juba – even the rich wouldn’t be prepared to spend that kind of money on an economy-class ticket,” said the Cabinet Secretary.
Further impacting growth of the industry are the challenges facing airports around the continent. Emanuel Chaves, Chairperson and Board CEO of Airports Mozambique, pointed out that along with similar challenges already mentioned by Adeyemi, airports continue to struggle due to the excess of protection extended to national carriers, which results in poor connectivity across Africa. “Airports are losing money due to low traffic – most are loss makers,” he says.
Rather than these protectionist policies, governments should be seizing the opportunity to work with airlines. Rodger Foster, CEO & Managing Director of Airlink, says recently the airline has worked successfully with the destinations of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, via the Namibian Airports Authority, to reintroduce flights and restart tourism with an immediate uptake by consumers.
Cabinet Secretary Balala also cited a very successful rebate system of incentives Kenya offered to charter airlines operating into Mombasa Airport in order to stimulate tourism growth. “Now we should be asking how we can do this with scheduled airlines. We need to establish what help the airlines require from government and then take it to government to get buy-in,” he added.
Along with financial support, of key importance will be getting all stakeholders to agree on common systems of costs, as well consolidation of regulations, points out Foster. “Africa comprises 54 states, which means 54 different civil aviation authorities – each with different regulations,” he says. In particular the competition regulations have to be abandoned at the earliest opportunity in order to reduce costs. “Once this happens, we can start generating the revenues needed so that airlines and tourism can thrive,” he concludes.