Making Africa Work

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Delta Air Lines operates service between the United States and six African cities in five countries. But, it’s not easy says Regional Director – Africa, Middle East and India, Jimmy Eichelgruen. He joined publisher Richard Lendrum and myself for coffee in Sandton, Johannesburg, and had some interesting thoughts on what exactly goes into making an international airline operation work in Africa.

Delta have a great interest in Africa. They currently fly to Abuja and Lagos in Nigeria, Dakar in Senegal, Accra in Ghana, Johannesburg in South Africa, and Monrovia in Liberia. Monrovia?

“It’s actually doing surprisingly nicely”, says Eichelgruen. “We started off with just one flight a week to Monrovia, and now we’re up to three flights a week. There was no direct service to the States, we tried it out and it worked. The business is there”.

So, where else would Delta like to be in Africa?

“We also have plans to go to Nairobi, but we have to get US government approval and that hasn’t been forthcoming. So, that’s not imminent, although it’s ultimately a destination we’d like to serve. Then there’s Equatorial Guinea – Malabo. Once again, it’s oil business, but there are infrastructure and security issues, in terms of the airport, and those have to be overcome first”.

That brings me to my next question. What’s the view from an international airline point of view, with regards to making an African operation work and taking on new routes on the continent?

“The rewards are there, but you’ve got to persevere and there are challenges”, says Eichelgruen. “It’s not an easy market. I’ve been asked why there was a big gap between when Pan Am operated into Africa and Delta started flying here. One of the reasons was that people didn’t get a handle on Africa – the government approvals, the bureaucracy, they’re all never ending. Then there’s the airport infrastructure and what we have to invest”.

What Eichelgruen can’t understand is why African governments make it so difficult for the likes of your Deltas to do business here, when the spin-offs for their countries are so great.

“Bringing an airline service into a country stimulates massive financial opportunity. According to IATA, aviation contribution to South Africa’s GDP is roughly 2.1% – that’s around R51 billion, which creates 340,000 jobs. So, governments should be supporting us, due to the fact that when we come in, we can make a big impact on tourism, business travel, exports etc”.

“The will to invest in infrastructure of the quality that South Africa has, is just not there in the rest of Africa. For example, in Accra, we had to build our own gates. In Liberia, we, together with Air France, have actually built our own terminal. But, you can’t keep doing that. We’re in the airline business, not the construction business, and we just don’t have bottomless pockets”.

As a result, says Eichelgruen, Delta will continue to do its homework, but also remain quite selective about where to sniff out the next African route. As it is, they have some new competition in Nigeria, with United now flying between Houston and Lagos. But, Eichelgruen remains confident that Delta will continue to prosper (strike action notwithstanding……).

“We’re established, we have a good reputation in the market, and we know how Africa works, operationally. But, whenever you get competition, you’ve got to stay sharp, and that’s what we intend to do”.

Dylan Rogers

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