Continental Shift

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Can low-cost carriers help Africa to bring its aviation industry into the 21st century? Jane Labous of Business Traveller UK reports.

Emerging from a terrifying African Airways plane to Bamako, Mali, I found my rucksack covered in fish oil, reeking in the heat. Later that trip, my friend had to persuade a freelance pilot to fly us back from Timbuktu in his private plane, as I was desperately ill and the overland journey was too difficult.

That student flight with the now defunct airline was the forerunner of many I have taken across Africa, all of them adventures in their own right, all of them involving a litany of lost baggage, prowling hustlers, off-hand, bureaucratic staff, assurances that the plane would leave soon, inshallah (“God willing”), and life-affirming applause on touchdown. The shuffling sound of a bolshy airport official walking slowly away with my passport will forever conjure up the horror and confusion of African passport control.

Everyone has a story. Ray X, a frequent flyer across Africa from Ghana, says it’s the hustlers that get to him. “For some strange reason, not one country in Africa has put its foot down on letting any local Tom, Dick or Harry hustler wander around the terminal looking to help their new foreign friend,” he says. “Ironically, their ‘help’ just ends up complicating matters.”

Says Michael Y, another frequent flyer to Angola, Gabon and Zimbabwe: “The amount of time to go through passport control and check-in is ridiculous. They claim it’s security, but they always want to find something wrong so they can get some money from you. In Gabon, by the time you arrive and get on the plane, you’ve shown your passport seven times – once the guard was going through my passport and it was upside down.”

But that, after all, is what you expect from flying in Africa, isn’t it? Evoking visions of Antoine de St Exupéry, the French airmail pilot and poet who blazed a trail over Africa in a Lockheed Lighting P38 plane in the forties, flying in Africa is seen as difficult, uncomfortable and spiced with an edge of danger. Things have changed, however. Today, Africa is widely seen as the last frontier for aviation, a market screaming with demand. In 2011, Airbus forecast African traffic to grow by an average 5.7% year on year for the next 20 years.

Richard Bodin, chief commercial officer of Fastjet – a new rapidly growing low-cost service in East Africa operating on the same model as Easyjet – says: “Africa’s economic development is booming in many sectors, governance is improving, FDI [foreign direct investment] is flowing and human capital is strengthening, yet still this development remains constrained by poor infrastructure, a lack of roads and railways, and long distances between cities.”

The leading airlines are upping their game – having become alliance members, they have had to improve everything from safety to service standards. EgyptAir, South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines are all now Star Alliance members, while Kenya Airways belongs to SkyTeam and is 26% owned by Air France-KLM. Board a Kenya Airways flight between Lusaka and Nairobi, and you will find sleek businessmen in designer suits filling the seats, flirting with the well-organised hostesses who firmly uphold the 60s tradition of in-flight glamour that has largely been lost in European markets. Meanwhile, the air crew training centre in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, a whitewashed building topped by a blue aeroplane that receives hundreds of applications every year, is testament to the desirability of a career in aviation.

As Nick Fadugba, chief executive of consultancy and event company African Aviation Services (AAS) and former secretary-general of the African Airlines Association, points out, the aviation industry is “a vital catalyst” for Africa’s economic growth and social advancement. “A safe, reliable and profitable African aviation industry that facilitates business, trade, tourism and social interaction on the continent and beyond, will help to create wealth and promote sustainable development,” he says on AAS’s website. If there is any continent on earth where air travel is most useful, it is Africa. Distances are so great and roads so poor that some journeys are either too lengthy to contemplate – nine hours off-road in a sweaty 4×4 between Banjul and Dakar is neither comfortable nor efficient – or simply impossible.

Meanwhile, where railways are in place, they rarely work. The line between Dakar and Bamako was notorious for its delays – I once waited three days at Dakar’s central station for the train to leave – and is now defunct. Railways in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries are similarly afflicted. With a burgeoning number of business travellers who can’t afford not to get there on time, air travel must step up to the mark. However, safety is the single biggest issue for every traveller to the continent. For years, Africa has had the highest rate of air accidents in the world. Even now, flying in Africa, I am one of many with sweaty palms – 32 of the 100 or so global airlines banned by EU are operated out of DRC, four others operate from Equatorial Guinea, and seven out of Sierra Leone. It is not for nothing that African dictators are renowned for taking private jets – they’re probably too scared to fly on their own national airlines.

Michael Y says: “I always have safety concerns and would only fly SAA, Kenya Airways, Royal Air Maroc or Ethiopian. I wouldn’t trust any from the Congos or Nigeria and I’d be afraid of flying the smaller airlines from Central and West Africa too. Would you trust a plane that has been serviced and checked in Conakry (Guinea) or Niger?”

The two tragic air crashes in Nigeria last year only compounded the issue. At a conference on air safety in Africa in December, Nigeria’s minister of aviation, Princess Stella Oduah, pushed for operators to comply with international industry standards. The trouble is that finding a flight with a reputable airline that is also affordable is often an even bigger challenge. Flying from a European hub into an African city will cost you an average amount, but flying between capitals on the continent can be extortionate. Recently Googling for a one-way flight between Accra in Ghana and Lome in Togo, the cheapest option was $900 for the 45-minute hop. Cameroon up to Senegal, a matter of a few hundred kilometres, can spiral into the thousands and is cheapest via Brussels. Try flying the 40 minutes down from Dakar to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and you might find you can’t get back for a fortnight.

Karsten Balke, chief commercial officer for Gambia Bird, a new airline serving West Africa, says the costs are down to huge airport taxes. But arguably there are other reasons – a lack of competition, inefficiency, bureaucracy and corruption. Unsurprisingly, Sir Richard Branson found that government officials expected bribes when he ran his subsidiary airline in Nigeria between 2004 and 2012. The question is that if routes were expanded and more airlines serviced the area, could the system cope? In sub-Saharan Africa, there are areas where pilots ensure their aircraft remain clear of others simply by “seeing and avoiding” other planes.

As Siza Mzimela, former chief executive of SAA, puts it: “It wasn’t just about where we wanted to fly. It was about where we could safely fly and where the infrastructure was of a standard our customers would expect.”

The champion of Africa’s aviation revolution must be Ethiopian Airlines, which this year became one of the first in the world to start operating the B787 Dreamliner, out of Addis Ababa. With a flight schedule serving everywhere from Kilimanjaro to Lome, the airline has opened up the continent, providing regular, safe, quality services to previously inaccessible capitals. Ethiopian is planning to introduce five additional B787s, with a vision of becoming Africa’s leading aviation group by 2025. Having experienced an average growth rate of 30% for the past eight years, making it the fastest-growing airline in Africa, this does not seem too ambitious. At the moment, the Dreamliner is mainly rostered for intercontinental destinations, with the exception of the daily Addis-Johannesburg service.

Other market-leading African airlines include smart Kenya Airways, a staple for internal flights across the eastern side of the continent. SAA has a good safety record and has been the continent’s best airline for decades, only slightly tarnished by a reputation for losing luggage, owing to a gang that reportedly operates at Johannesburg airport. British Airways has served the continent for 80 years. Regional commercial manager Ian Petrie says: “Generally speaking, Africa is growing, as opposed to many established markets, and consequently the demand for scheduled, reliable air services is growing.” But he believes expansion is still being limited by undesirable state-owned airlines crowding the market.

The introduction of low-cost airlines represents a real revolution in African air travel, with the potential to solve the problem of finding cheap, safe, internal flights. Fastjet launched in November last year, operating two routes in Tanzania twice daily – from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza and Kilimanjaro – with ticket prices averaging $80. It is awaiting approval to fly into Uganda and Kenya. Just like Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s other brainchild, passengers are invited to pay only for what they want and need, thus keeping fares low. Fastjet’s Bodin says: “Future demand is currently far outstripping supply. A successful low-cost airline strategy is about stimulating the market, removing the price barriers and creating a real alternative to road traffic. We’re on a mission to democratise air travel by offering highly competitive pricing that will enable more people to fly.”

Gambia Bird, which launched last year as an alternative to the bigger airlines, operates multiple routes in West Africa, including a much-needed route between Dakar and Bamako. It has set itself up in direct competition with Nigeria’s Arik Air, which already operates almost 30 routes in the region, and Senegal Airlines – a reasonably reputable, if often delayed, service between some West African capitals. For Gambia Bird’s Balke, low-cost is a misleading description. “In this region, it is not about low-cost,” he says. “Passengers want safety, reliability and global standards. Airlines will use low-cost to attract customers, but all airlines have to factor in the inherent costs of operating in West Africa, plus the taxes levied by the government and the airport in each country. Our intention is to be affordable and competitive, yet also manage costs effectively so the airline succeeds.” Its current prices typically range from $290 to $335.

However, while these carriers have promised to revolutionise ticket sales with Internet sales that would cut costs and make pricing transparent, this hasn’t yet happened. Click on the “online booking” box on Gambia Bird’s website and you’ll be directed to a list of agents, rather than the sole official office in Banjul. The company says it is developing an online booking system that it hopes to introduce this year. Fastjet’s site is better, but will only allow you to make a reservation which is held for a limited time – you must still visit a Fastjet office or an agent to finalise the booking. It has launched a mobile phone payment option, though, and credit and debit card payments were expected to be introduced shortly as we went to press.

It would be unrealistic to think that the flying experience in Africa will change in a day. The airlines may have big plans, but ground support is difficult and airport customer service remains sketchy. A month ago, at the check-in desk in Dakar, I handed in my passport only to find that the carousel wasn’t working. The tired-looking man shook his head and it was only after helping him to lift a few suitcases out of the way that he agreed to check me in. I was recently given someone else’s boarding pass at check-in, and, in Bamako last year, I ordered a chicken sandwich from inside the terminal from a guy who ran outside to get it for 50p – the sandwich was delicious, but I did have to question security. The airports are crying out for improvement and expansion. Nairobi airport, the principal hub for the eastern side, is so undeveloped it’s shocking. For years there have been rumours of a new airport in Dakar, but it is still being built and has been blighted by rumours of corruption.

Still, things are developing – most hub airports in West Africa now offer an affordable shrink-wrapping service to protect luggage, for example. In Dakar, the hustlers are fewer these days. Progress is quietly happening. In the meantime, every frequent flyer lives by their coping strategies. Michael Y advises: “Don’t pack anything valuable – a computer in the suitcase means you are asking them to ‘lose’ your bag. Don’t arrive with little time to check in – you never know what you might find when you get to the airport.” Ray X adds: “Always have money, trust few and expect the unexpected. Never sit around and wait; push or get left behind. Things go wrong on a daily basis – you have to just keep calm.”

And my own? I’ve adopted that time-honoured West African saying: inshallah. God willing, I will get there. 

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