South Africa

South Africa

Aviation: Is South Africa lagging behind in the fight for Africa’s skies?

Aviation: Is South Africa lagging behind in the fight for Africa’s skies?

Ethiopia is about to break ground on a new mega-airport just outside of Addis Ababa. When it is finished, it will be the size of Heathrow, dwarfing anywhere else on the continent. It’s a bold move which might just make Ethiopia the aviation capital of Africa – leaving South Africa, and struggling SAA, in its wake. By SIMON ALLISON.

It’s no secret that land-locked Ethiopia has grand plans to turn itself into Africa’s chief aviation hub.

Over the last few years, Ethiopian Airlines has overtaken South African Airways as the largest airline on the continent in terms of fleet size – and their fleet includes 11 of the ultra-efficient new Boeing 787 Dreamliners. This year, it looks likely to overtake SAA on passenger numbers too.

This has been accompanied by a steady expansion of Addis Ababa’s Bole Airport, which can currently handle seven million passengers a year. Not much in the grand scheme of things, but new construction has already begun to increase this to 25 million passengers, which will be more than OR Tambo International in Johannesburg (18 million) and Cairo International (22 million).

Bole’s expansion is just the beginning, however. According to Tewodros Dawit, General Manger of the Ethiopian Airports Enterprise, the country has begun selecting a site for a new mega-airport just outside of Addis Ababa. When finished the new airport could serve 70 million passengers per year. Construction should take about eight years, and cost around $3 billion.

On 2013 statistics, this would make the new Addis Ababa airport the fourth busiest in the world, behind Atlanta International, Beijing Capital and London Heathrow. No lack of ambition there, although airport size is no guarantee that passengers will actually arrive.

“The existing airport should be developed until it becomes a competitive airport hub in Africa and the Middle East. We have decided to build additional airport as the existing airport may not be able to properly serve its customers for more than 15 years unless another option or solution is sought,” said Dawit.

The announcement is the latest move in an ultra-competitive rivalry between Addis Ababa and Nairobi and their respective national airlines to become the main hub airport for East Africa – and, ultimately, the continent’s aviation capital. “The key word here is hub. There’s a need for a hub in East Africa, Southern Africa and West Africa. Kenyan Airways and Ethiopian have been quietly battling it out to be the hub for that area, and Ethiopian seems to be winning,” said Guy Leitch, aviation expert and editor of SA Flyer.

The scale of the new airport suggests that Ethiopia’s ambition extends even beyond Africa. “They are trying to take on the Gulf three. Emirates, Etihad and Qatar have reinvented the geography of aviation by creating massive hubs in the Gulf. Ethiopian is trying to compete with them, and good luck to them because they are Africa’s most successful airline,” said Leitch.

Ethiopia’s not the only country with designs on capturing Africa’s rapidly expanding air traffic. In the Mail & Guardian Africa, Mikolaj Radlicki rounds up several other huge projects in the works, including new airports in Khartoum, Lome, Djibouti and Dakar – all, incidentally, being funded by Chinese loans. Radlicki points out that Africa handles just 2.5% of the world’s air traffic, despite hosting 15% of its population, leaving plenty of room for new developments.

Although still a major player, South Africa and South African Airways will have a tough time adapting to this changing aviation landscape – and will certainly struggle to match Ethiopia’s ambition. One factor at play is simple geography: being at the bottom tip of the Africa might make for spectacular beaches, but it is a long way to go just for a transit. Both Addis and Nairobi are a more convenient connection for most destinations, and therefore cheaper.

Another is SAA’s own well-publicised issues with finances, management and unprofitable routes. This has left the carrier without the necessary long-term vision to plan for and build necessary infrastructure. “Yes, [South Africa is] being left behind,” said Leitch. “SAA is so wrapped up in its current management problems and therefore is not positioned for growth.” DM

Photo: An Ethiopian Airlines’ 787 Dreamliner takes-off from the Bole International Airport in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, April 27, 2013. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Read more:

  • Ethiopia: New International Airport to Be ‘As Big As Heathrow’ on the Ethiopian Herald
  • From Sudan to Senegal, Africa’s head-turning new airports…with a helping hand from Chinese friends on Mail & Guardian Africa

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