Daily Maverick

Flying under African skies – for cheap, this time

Plane tickets in Africa are crazy expensive, as anyone who has tried to fly pretty much anywhere on the continent can tell you. Previous attempts to bring the budget carrier model here have failed, scuppered by short-sighted government regulation and excessive taxes. New airline Fastjet, launched on Wednesday in Tanzania, thinks it is about to change all this. At R450 a ticket, it might be right. By SIMON ALLISON.

It’s not easy to get around Africa. Roads aren’t that plentiful, railroads nearly non-existent and rivers often impassable. That leaves air travel, which in this continent is expensive and time-consuming. The industry has been dominated for decades by lumbering state-run airlines (SAA, we’re looking at you) and strangled by expensive red tape, meaning passengers pay way over the odds.

Surely, there’s a business opportunity here. If anywhere is ready for a low-cost, no-frills airline, it is Africa.

Swooping into this ripe, untapped market is Fastjet: the African iteration of Europe’s Easyjet, famed for its bright orange livery, dirt cheap tickets (before you’ve paid for your bags and your taxes, of course) and knee-jarring lack of legroom. Easyjet’s founder, Stelios Haji Ioannou, owns a share in the new African venture and is on the board of directors, and it is his pioneering model that the new airline will need to adopt if it is to carve a permanent place in Africa’s airspace.

The model, as European passengers are well aware, is not necessarily a comfortable one. Tickets might be cheap but add-ons such as food, drinks and entertainment are not, while check-in baggage can add significantly to the cost. Arrival and departure slots are often terribly inconvenient, allowing the airline to cut back on airport fees, and often the airport itself is misleadingly far from your intended destination.

No matter: passengers can still get to and from almost anywhere in Europe for less than the price of petrol to drive there, and they have done so in their millions, revolutionising air travel along the way.

Now it’s Africa’s turn. Fastjet’s first scheduled flight took off from Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on Wednesday, destination Mwanza. For now, the airline is operating just two domestic routes in Tanzania – to Mwanza and Kilimanjaro – as it waits to get clearance for international flights. It expects to add routes to Kenya and Uganda within weeks, and to expand the size of its fleet, which is currently just three 159-seater Airbus 319s, decked out in the airline’s signature bright yellow with an African Gray parrot on the tail.

Tickets on the maiden flight sold for about $50 (R460). “That is cheaper than taking the bus, and it means I can go for a meeting in the morning and be back in Dar by evening – it’s unbelievable,” said charity worker Godfrey Hicheka in an interview with The Telegraph.

Fastjet isn’t the first budget airline to attempt to crack the African market. A recent high-profile casualty was 1Time, which flew several international routes from its South African base. Its grand continental expansion plans were scuppered, however, by a combination of government restrictions on new routes and excessive airport taxes: problems that Fastjet too will face. Another victim is Fly540, which abandoned the low fares model to offer a full service airline, at full prices.

Fly540, in fact, is owned by Lonrho, the same company that owns the majority stake in Fastjet. It’s expected that Fastjet will eventually absorb Fly540’s planes and routes and turn it into the budget carrier it was originally supposed to be.

But already Fastjet has encountered the same old problems. West Africa was the original launch pad for the airline, given that the region is one of the least connected in Africa. With commercial hubs like Nigeria and Ghana providing plenty of demand, there would be no shortage of passengers. But West African governments were unwilling to drop airport taxes ranging from $60 to $120 a passenger; Tanzanian airports, by contrast, ask for just $40. The sudden change has not daunted the airline’s ambition. “Next week, we’re going to be Tanzania’s low-cost carrier,” said chief executive Ed Winter.“Not too long after that we can be east Africa’s low-cost carrier, but our ambition is to be a pan-Africa low-cost carrier.”

Blacky Komani, former chief executive of 1Time, believes Fastjet can do it. “If you look at the history of Fastjet with their shareholders, these are guys with lots of experience. I think we can learn a lot from them,” he told Daily Maverick. “So the only advice I can give to them is that Africa is a different territory to operate in. Things move slowly. But their investment shows a lot of confidence in Africa.” DM

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