Global Airlines Join Africa’s Growing Aviation Market

Global Airlines Join Africa’s Growing Aviation Market

Airlines that never flew to Africa are discovering the continent with big carriers from the Persian Gulf taking the lead in Africa’s growing aviation market, dominated in the past by former colonial European countries.

The rise of sub-Saharan Africa will be a key topic this week at the International Air Transport Association annual meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, according to a report in Wall Street Journal.

Until recently, Africa traffic consisted mostly of Western business people, a few Africans who could afford to fly and international aid workers, the report says. Now, seats hold rising numbers of African business people and citizens with new found personal wealth. Chinese construction companies, Australian mining giants and U.S. oil companies also fill flights, according to the report. Chinese construction company workers, Australian mining employees and U.S. oil companies also fill flights, according to the report.

Delta Air Lines, which began direct flights to Africa in 2006, is now the largest carrier between the U.S. and Africa, with about 37 percent of passenger capacity compared to South African Airways, the largest African trans-Atlantic carrier, with 27 percent, according to Innovata.

Qatar Airways, Dubai-based Emirates Air Line and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Air Ways see the market as easy pickings in their backyard and a growing number of carriers from the continent are expanding operations. But they’re finding the competition tough with global giants, the Wall Street Journal says.

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The potential losers are European airlines, which until recently offered the only reliable connections to many African countries, according to the report.

“The Europeans have suddenly started to wake up,” Emirates President Tim Clark said in the Wall Street Journal. While European carriers slowed their African expansion in recent years, “we saw it as a huge opportunity,” he said. Emirates is closing in on Air France as the non-African carrier with the most traffic to Africa, according to consulting firm Innovata LLC.

Air France, which owns 26 percent of Kenya Airways and 20 percent of Air Côte d’Ivoire, is increasing capacity on Africa flights by more than 8 percent this summer, says Pierre Descazeaux, Air France’s senior vice president for Africa and the Middle East, in the Wall Street Journal report. Flights, routes and aircraft size are all growing, he says.

BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China,) which are among the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets, are also growing a share of Africa’s international trade.

African airlines’ infrastructure and safety record are improving, with passenger traffic up 7.3 percent for the year ending April 30 as spending increases among Africans. The continent’s aviation growth rate is second only to the Mideast, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Etihad Chief Executive James Hogan says the carrier recently expanded in Africa, striking  deals with South African and Kenya airlines to sell seats on each other’s flights.

While few Africa-Asia routes generate enough traffic for direct flights, Persian Gulf carriers, located strategically between Africa and Asia, transport travelers from many places through hubs such as Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

Travelers benefit form the competition, but global airlines from affluent markets put the African operators at a disadvantage, says Raphael Kuuchi, director of industry affairs at the African Airlines Association in Nairobi, Kenya, the report says.

African airlines accounted for 35 percent of traffic to and from the continent last year and their share fell 16 percent in 10 years, the association said in the report. Middle Eastern airlines more than doubled their capacity to Africa over the same period.

Still, some African carriers are investing in new planes and getting creative. Ethiopian and Kenya airways ordered Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner and are increasing service. Several African carriers are focusing on travel within Africa and to regions where the competition is less keen and the growth potential high, such as Asia and Latin America, Kuuchi says in the Wall Street Journal.

Until recently, travelers to or from most of Africa had to transfer through Europe with little competition from other areas, the report said. Europe still has more than 60 percent of overseas capacity to Africa, compared with 30 percent for Middle Eastern carriers, according to Innovat.

But economic crisis in Europe is straining efforts and Mideast traffic is growing about 10 percent each year with no sign of  slowing down, according to Roeland van den Bergh, a senior analyst at the Centre for Aviation consulting firm in Sydney, the report says.