Defend Truth


Africa should be a thriving aviation hub, but politics of patronage and prestige hobbles airlines

Africa should be a thriving aviation hub, but politics of patronage and prestige hobbles airlines
(Photo: Unsplash / Fahrul Azi)

The African skies have been a cemetery for many local airlines since the end of colonialism. The lack of transport connectivity between cities, countries and markets in Africa has been a drag on economic growth, development and industrialisation.

Like South African Airways, almost all African airlines face financial, profitability and operational turbulences, yet, as can be seen by the spectacular successes of a select few, opportunities abound on a continent which lacks adequate transport connectivity between cities, countries and the rest of the world.

With its vast expanse and 54 United Nations-recognised countries, Africa should naturally be a thriving hub for air travel, connecting nations, bringing products to markets and carrying tourists to its fauna and flora – and so fostering economic growth.

However, in the choppy skies of Africa’s aviation landscape, the dreams of thriving airlines often face headwinds of economic instability, infrastructure gaps and regulatory hurdles. 

The African skies have been a cemetery for many local airlines since the end of colonialism. The lack of transport connectivity between cities, countries and markets in Africa has been a drag on economic growth, development and industrialisation.

Political connectedness trumps competence

Many of Africa’s failing airlines are state-owned – appointments and contracts are made by governing parties and leaders, based on connectedness instead of competence and ability, which means their management is often poor. Governments that own African airlines often do not insist that they are profitable or managed efficiently.

Airlines are often viewed solely as state utilities that can provide jobs, contracts for members of governing elites and prestige for African governing parties. Airlines are often run on unprofitable routes, but satisfy political alliances and considerations their governments have with other countries.

Failing state airlines are often fiercely protected for prestige and patronage reasons, even if they are inefficient, run corruptly and wasteful. Many state airlines are regularly bailed out by governments without the requirement that they, in turn, be managed by competent managers, increase performance and cut waste.

For instance, Kenya Airways recently received a R5.85-billion ($300-million) state bailout, which, according to Business Insider Africa, takes the airline’s total liabilities to R16.5-billion ($845.5-million).

Financial, operational and regulatory turbulence

Navigating the complicated regulatory environments of various African countries has been the demise of many airlines. Bureaucratic red tape, inconsistent policies and burdensome licensing procedures have deterred potential investors and hindered the growth of new airlines. 

For example, Zimbabwean carrier, Fastjet Zimbabwe, was prevented by the government from commencing domestic flights after a three-year registration period. 

The economic landscape poses a significant hurdle for African airlines.

Fluctuating currencies, limited access to financing and high operating costs have cast a long shadow over the financial viability of many. For example, in Nigeria, aircraft fuel prices have risen by a staggering 346% to R41.57 ($2.16) per litre of Jet A-1 fuel since February 2022, according to Ch-Aviation. That’s in comparison to South Africa where Jet A-1 fuel is priced at about R12.92 ($0.67) per litre.

Airport infrastructure in many African countries is not only outdated, but often poorly maintained and inadequate. Connectivity in many African airports is poor. Many African airlines have older planes. Radar coverage in some places is erratic. Safety regulations are in some cases poorly safeguarded.

Last year, Nigeria’s civil aviation regulator suspended the operations of Dana Air, citing safety concerns. The year before, the Nigerian regulator suspended Azman Air’s flight operations, also for safety reasons. The infrastructure deficiencies, poor connectivity and a lack of maintenance facilities make it challenging to conduct successful aviation operations in the region.

Lagos Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Nigeria’s largest airport, recently opened its new Terminal 2 building. However, due to a lack of design foresight, the terminal apron was built too small to accommodate larger aircraft and has been left underutilised. Because of this design flaw, R5.8-billion ($300-million) worth of aviation facilities will be demolished to rectify an error that should never have been made in the first place.

Paths to prosperity

Despite these challenges, some airlines have managed to defy the odds and achieve remarkable success.

Through effective management, service differentiation, strategic alliances and government easing onerous administrative burdens, these carriers have charted a path to prosperity and set an example for others to follow. 

Ethiopian Airlines stands out as the most successful airline on the African continent. With its strategic location in Addis Ababa, the airline has established itself as a key connector between Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Ethiopian Airlines has a robust network of destinations, offering extensive coverage globally. Its operational excellence, modern fleet and commitment to safety have earned it a stellar reputation.

Ethiopian Airlines has also formed strategic partnerships and alliances, expanding its reach and enhancing its competitiveness. The airline has consistently had professional management, regularly benchmarks its performance against global competitors and has prioritised profitability. 

The Ethiopian government has steered clear from meddling in its operations.

TAAG Angola Airlines, the national carrier of Angola, has proved to be another African success story.

The airline has witnessed an impressive recovery in the post-pandemic era. In the fiscal year 2022, the airline achieved significant financial success, with a remarkable 30% increase in net profit, totalling R15.4-million. 

Operating revenue also doubled compared with the previous year, reaching R7.5-billion. Notably, TAAG’s cargo operations experienced strong growth, contributing R1.2-billion in operating revenue. 

The Angolan government appointed Eduardo Fairen Soria, an experienced manager, engineer, pilot and former chief of Viva Air Peru, as the CEO of TAAG. Soria has prioritised professionalising the operations of TAAG Airlines, benchmarking its operations to that of successful international peers and focused on making the airline profitable. He has focused on niche markets. The Angolan government plans to privatise the airline.

Asky Airlines, a strategic partner of Ethiopian Airlines, based in Lomé, Togo, has grown into the largest international airline in West Africa. 

The airline has achieved remarkable success by deviating from the vastly used – among national carriers – “hub-and-spoke” model and has rather favoured a uniquely formulated iteration of the “point-to-point” model.

The airline offers a series of Fifth Freedom Flights (flights that carry passengers between two countries that are different from the home base of the airline operating the flight) that operate in a similar structure to a bus service.

For instance, the airline operates a flight that departs from Lome (Togo) and travels to Accra (Ghana), Freetown (Sierra Leone) and Banjul (Gambia) before returning to Lome, following the same path in reverse.

This approach allows for convenient travel options, similar to how a bus route operates, providing connectivity between these cities in a circular manner. Travellers get on and off the aircraft depending on their final destination, meaning those travelling from Accra to Banjul would stay aboard the aircraft as it makes its way through West Africa.

While numerous airlines have faced challenges and even failures across Africa, there are shining examples of success that demonstrate the potential for growth and profitability.

Through strategic planning, innovation and a commitment to providing excellent services, African airlines can navigate the challenges they face and emerge as strong and sustainable players in the global aviation market. DM

Emil Gumede is an aviation analyst based at the University of Sussex.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz