Every recent forecast has said that prospects are bright for Africa’s airlines but, for many, success has proved elusive. Now, however, Raphael Kuuchi, vice-president Africa for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), tells Alan Dron why he believes that a genuine upswing is just around the corner.
In the past few years, several African airlines and governments have expressed concerns that carriers from outside the continent are increasingly sucking up passengers and cargo that should be handled by indigenous operators.
Certainly, Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines have been making substantial inroads into Africa, pulling traffic through their respective hubs.
Raphael Kuuchi, IATA’s most senior man on the continent, accepts that outsiders are elbowing their way in, but believes African airlines have to look at themselves before pointing accusatory fingers at others.
“I always say that if goods and people have to move, they will move anyway. If African airlines and operators fail to organise themselves effectively to take care of their traffic, then they shouldn’t blame non-African carriers for doing so.
“Intra-African traffic is basically the preserve of African airlines, but they are ill-prepared to take advantage. Traffic being taken by non-African airlines is inter-continental.
“African airlines need to get their act together and take advantage of what is predicted to be the fastest-growing aviation region of the world over the next 20 years, with 5.9% annual growth projected out to 2036.”
African carriers should work with each other, develop their traffic flows within the continent, and then launch themselves on the intercontinental scene, said Kuuchi.
Of course, there are already some profitable African airlines, but they are in the minority. They include Ethiopian Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, Asky Airlines of Togo, plus South Africa’s Comair and SA Airlink.
RwandAir and Air Cote d’Ivoire are among a small category of expanding airlines, while the oldest carrier on the continent, EgyptAir, is returning to strength after a series of disruptions in recent years caused by external political factors.
But many of Africa’s airlines are held back by a combination of factors, said Kuuchi. “To start with, most airlines are very small and, in aviation, small is not beautiful. If you’re small, everything you buy is at huge cost.
“Additionally, most airlines are grossly under-capitalised, so they use ageing aircraft that are not economic to operate and very expensive to maintain.”
The cost of operations is driven further upwards by high taxes, charges and airport fees.
African airlines also fail to cooperate, for example, by working together in codeshares, while weak management is another issue, particularly where governments choose managers or board members.
The last of these is one area where governments could make a rapid improvement – by not getting involved in management: “Getting out of the boardroom is one thing; stay away from running airlines. We know governments throughout the world haven’t been good businessmen. Leave it to the private sector – they’ll drive the business,” said Kuuchi.
Giving national civil aviation regulators the powers for necessary oversight of carriers to ensure air transport is safe was also vital, he added.
One area where governments can be useful is putting in place the necessary infrastructure; many African airports are capacity-constrained and should be expanded. But investment in infrastructure should not be disproportionate to the market; it should be tailored to forecast demand, not spent on vanity projects that cost too much and then require high charges to repay the outlay. That deters traffic.
Investment in air traffic navigation equipment and technology to facilitate passenger movement and immigration procedures is also needed, he said.
For example, intra-African traffic is all too often stifled by a lack of ‘visa-on-arrival’ facilities. Many African nations do not have embassies in every country on the continent, which means that travellers often have to visit a third country to obtain a visa before embarking on their intended journey. Other nations allow visa-on-arrival for only a limited number of countries. And even those nations that do allow visa-on-arrival frequently charge large sums for them – as much as $100-150 – which is out of the reach of many.
The answer to many of the problems of intra-African traffic was put forward in the Yamoussoukro Declaration of 2002, which theoretically allowed an ‘open skies’ system throughout Africa, giving airlines the freedom to operate services wherever they thought they could profitably fly.
Unfortunately, the declaration has remained inactive, as many nations have failed to ratify the original document. Eleven countries signed up to the initial decision, with another 11 having joined them over the years. Those 22 nations account for around 80% of intra-African traffic.
What is required is actual implementation. This requires certain legal instruments to be put in place. And this may – finally – be about to happen, said Kuuchi.
In November 2017, a ministerial committee made up of the 11 original signatories to the decision ratified a series of legal instruments covering competition regulations and a dispute settlement mechanism. They also agreed on the functions and powers of the declaration’s ‘executing agency’, the body that is supposed to oversee this long-awaited liberalisation of air services.
These legal instruments are due to be agreed at a head of states meeting in Addis Ababa in January 2018: “Once that happens then, at last, the African Civil Aviation Commission, which has been tasked with the responsibility of the executing agency, will be able to put monitors in place and hold states accountable for making freedom of movement throughout Africa a reality.”
Perhaps dawn is finally about to break for Africa’s airlines. (africanaerospace)