How the pandemic can shake up African airlines for the better

This op-ed won the audience prize of the inaugural The Continent/Democracy in Africa Prize for Comment Writing

Cooperation in Africa’s air travel could create at least 155 000 jobs and $1.3-billion more in economic growth. It could also stop the situation where travelling to Europe is cheaper than travelling around the continent.  

And the opportunity exists right now, as a result of Covid-19. Many airlines are grounded. Some permanently. But, as wind blows out a candle but fans a fire, this can be an opportunity.  

This will give the surviving airlines a fighting chance to rebound and thrive as air travel re-opens. It will provide consumers with lower fares, higher connectivity and greater choice. 

Economies will also benefit. 

The first step is to free up the physical airspace above countries. That space, and the aviation industry, is governed by the Chicago Convention. This recognises the sovereignty of states to the airspace above their territory. They are mandated to provide air navigation infrastructure to guide flights in that airspace. In return, they can charge modest fees to recover their costs, like toll stations in the sky.

But the fees vary wildly from country to country. 

The flight of a typical regional aircraft, a Boeing 737, over a distance of 925km attracts overflight fees as high as US$1 265 in Sudan and as low as US$50 in the Seychelles. This is according to calculations by the African Airlines Association. 

Many countries consider aviation as a cash cow and milk it for what it is worth. 

In west Africa, countries work together and manage their airspace as one. Europe does the same. Other African countries should follow suit. This avoids the duplication of equipment and costs, resulting in lower overflight fees and hence lower operational costs for airlines and cheaper tickets.  

The second step concerns access to markets. Africa has a structural weakness where there is poor travel between countries, and a reliance on overseas airlines. During the phase of Covid-19 lockdowns, this meant many Africans were marooned in other countries. 

With fewer flights, offering little intra-African travel, the airline industry has not reached its potential. This means airports and airlines need to charge more per user. It means inadequate airport infrastructure and a skills gap for both technical and management expertise.  

All these are symptoms of a more malignant malaise. South African Airways  has restarted operations after a hiatus of seventeen months triggered by a bankruptcy protection. Kenya Airways is heading back to nationalisation after a privatisation that was initially hailed as a great success. Doing the same thing repeatedly does not lead to different outcomes. 

And the market is there. Africa has 16% of the world’s population but accounts for less than 4 percent of the aviation service market. 

The proposed Single African Air Transport Market seeks to cure this by introducing a single aviation market across the continent. This removes restrictions to market access as well as those on airline ownership.

But it has run into headwinds. Ethiopia has been accused of protectionism. Uganda has expressed disquiet over potential domination of its fledgling air industry by more entrenched airlines. Other governments are also loath to set their flag carriers free because they are a source of national pride. They are also important diplomatic tools — Ethiopia used its carrier to transport tens of millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines when other airlines were in hibernation.  

Working together and freeing up the air travel industry to reach its potential should be likened to the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats. Some airlines may initially experience a drop in market share, but the great benefits to the industry will ensure growth of air travel across all states. A vibrant industry provides more jobs. 

Daniel Odido lectures at Moi University’s School of Sciences & Aerospace Studies in Kenya. 

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Daniel Odido
Daniel Odido lectures at Moi University’s School of Sciences & Aerospace Studies in Kenya.

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