There has been a lot of talk about the challenges facing African aviation over the years – but rarely solutions. Now the team from OAG, the specialist in aviation information and analytical services, has put forward its proposal to get the industry to meet its potential.
African aviation punches below its weight. Although 15% of the world’s population resides on the African continent, just 3% of all departing scheduled airline seats leave from there.
Furthermore, despite higher economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa than among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries – 4.2% vs 1.7% in 2014 – airline seats to and from Africa have only grown by an average of 2% annually since 2011.
For all the talk among African leaders of encouraging competition, there is still resistance to opening aviation markets. States have protected their home markets from other African carriers but the threat is now perceived as being greater from non-African airlines.
In September 2015, Emirates will operate scheduled services to 20 destinations in 17 African countries from its Dubai hub.
Similarly, Turkish Airlines now operates to 29 destinations in 19 African countries from its Istanbul hub, though total capacity is just over half of that of Emirates due to fleet differences. Emirates averages 367 seats per aircraft, while Turkish, with a more varied fleet, has an average of 178.
For some of Africa’s thinner routes, the Turkish model appears a better fit, although Emirates’ network east of Dubai, and the latent power of Flydubai, mean it is likely to be more of a threat in the long term than Turkish Airlines.
It is easy to understand the threat, perceived or otherwise. After all, Emirates is five times larger than Ethiopian Airlines or South African Airways, based on seat capacity. However, the reality is that the share of airline seats to, from and within Africa that are operated by non-African carriers has remained fairly static at between 29% and 32% in each of the past 15 years.
For a continent of 54 countries, a population of 1.1 billion and air traffic growth projections of 4.7% per year by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Africa has only one airport, Johannesburg, among the world’s top 100 airports in September 2015, as measured by departing seats.
It ranks 85th, due in part to the size of the South African domestic market, which is the largest in Africa.
There are only two African airlines ranked among the world’s top 100 airlines by the same measure, and they are South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines, ranked 87th and 89th, respectively. Total seats operated by all African airlines together are fewer than the number flying into London airports in September 2015.
The reasons for underperformance among African carriers are well documented – the slow pace of liberalisation, protection of national companies, high taxes and fees, and even safety issues. The result has been poor development of intra-regional air services, high airfares and citizens and businesses that are not afforded the opportunities that air travel could bring.
So how can African aviation fulfil its potential?
In this report, we suggest it would benefit from a sense of positive disruption and, as a result of that, we propose our own ‘Big Five’ disruptive strategies, which could be undertaken by individual airlines, airports and countries, giving Africa the potential to reshape its aviation industry.
1) Could South African Airways do ‘an Air New Zealand’?
The South African aviation market is the largest in Africa and South African
Airways (SAA) is Africa’s largest carrier, with 1% more capacity than EgyptAir and Ethiopian Airlines.
SAA grew capacity by 3% in 2014 but, the year before, capacity declined by 1%. In September 2015 its capacity is 2.4% lower than September 2014, while the South African market as a whole has grown by 9.9%.
The airline has been slowly reshaping its route network to focus more on regional flying within southern Africa as well as the rest of Africa. Its latest turnaround strategy is focused on optimising the route network with lossmaking long-haul routes to Beijing and Mumbai getting cut, while new daily services to Abu Dhabi have been introduced, allowing it to serve India through its strategic partnership with Etihad.
Mango, SAA’s low-cost carrier (LCC) subsidiary, has been growing strongly with seats up 18% this September versus last. Collectively they operate more than 50% of domestic capacity in South Africa and have done so for several years.
Should SAA be looking at a more radical strategic re-think? In markets where LCC presence is increasing, the continuation of a full- service profitable product offering is difficult. Perhaps for SAA, Mango represents the alternative long-term option for domestic and regional markets?
A radical and disrupting move might be to take a lesson from fellow Star Alliance member, Air New Zealand. Like SAA, New Zealand is located at the geographical edge of a region and had a chequered financial performance, eventually being renationalised as part of a government rescue plan in 2001.
In contrast to SAA, however, Air New Zealand has been celebrating three consecutive years of earnings growth and a rising share price following the launch of its ‘seats to suit’ product a few years ago; an innovative mechanism designed to enable it to compete with both legacy carriers and LCCs.
Air New Zealand could have chosen to face the competitive landscape by taking smaller incremental steps but its willingness to take a radical and innovative one at the right time has paid off.
So what if South African Airways were to develop its own equivalent product, allowing the airline to cut costs while maintaining a market- appropriate product? Could Mango be part of the move? It seems it is time for SAA to let go of the past as its history is preventing its future.
2) Air Africa? Branding future for Ethiopian Airlines?
Ethiopian is probably the most successful airline in Africa right now. In contrast to SAA, it has been growing its share of African aviation. It boasts 7.3% of African capacity compared to 4.4% just four years earlier. Its capacity has grown in strong double-digits for several years and the airline is profitable.
It has recognised its market opportunity as a gateway for air services between China and Africa, creating an effective hub at Addis Ababa Airport, which attracts 55% of the nonstop capacity between Africa and China.
A recent OAG report identified that China is Africa’s largest trading partner and services between Africa and north east Asia have more than doubled since 2010. Ethiopian Airlines has been instrumental in that growth, with services from Africa to Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
Airports such as Panama City and Lima in Latin America similarly recognised their potential based on an advantageous geographic position for certain traffic flows. A comparison of the capacity growth at Lima (LIM), Panama City (PTY) and Addis Ababa (ADD) since 2000 shows that the trajectories are not dissimilar. In fact, given the lower level of air services at Addis Ababa in 2000, the relative performance at ADD has been stronger.
While Addis Ababa is clearly well placed geographically to connect travellers from China and other parts of Asia to Africa, could Ethiopian be setting its sights higher to become a pan- African brand?
This is not a novel concept – in the United States, the major carriers all have a west, east, central and southern hub. Could Ethiopian replicate that sort of approach in Africa?
Local ownership rules have always been a blocking tactic for ambitious expansive airlines. However, carriers such as AirAsia have disrupted this tradition by creating joint ventures (JVs) based in different countries. This is enabling the airline to create a
virtual network of hubs.
There is some evidence emerging that Ethiopian could have its sights on a similar regional expansion using JVs to create a virtual network.
It already has a 40% stake in Togo-based Asky, which uses some aircraft owned by Ethiopian. Ethiopian also has a 49% stake in Malawian Airlines, which was launched in January 2014 as a JV with the Malawian Government, with Ethiopian owning the aircraft there too.
Other options that have been discussed include a share in RwandAir and JVs with two African governments.
It may be that some of these JVs are simply pragmatic solutions to expanding into new markets and alternative vehicles for protecting national interests, but were all these JVs to prove successful, it would give Ethiopian a strong presence across eastern, central and southern Africa.
To be truly disruptive, could Ethioopian create a single brand identity for its network of JVs?
Could the Ethiopian of today be the ‘AirAfrica’ of tomorrow?
3) Connecting Africa’s biggest cities
One of the reasons that OAG recognises the potential of Africa is that both the economy and the population is growing strongly, even if the current level of economic output is, on average, relatively low. However, many of the air services reflect the economic ties of previous times, with better connections to western European capital cities than other parts of the continent. What if airlines within Africa refocused on connecting the major cities on the continent?
Each of the 10 largest urban conurbations has a population of around five million or more. If a nonstop air service were available between each one of them, there would be 45 routes connecting these cities.
However, only 22 of the 45 possible routes have nonstop air service today.
That leaves 23 routes between these cities unserved, the smallest of which, Abidjan, has a population of nearly five million but only has scheduled services to two of the other top 10 urban areas.
OAG Traffic Analyser shows that the actual volume of passengers using one-stop services to travel between the top ten cities in Africa without nonstop air service is small, numbering around 35,000 in the 12 months to April 2015. In addition, 14% of these were connecting at an airport outside Africa.
However, whereas routes are usually operated where demand is evident, in this instance might the lack of air service be holding back economic development across the continent?
4) Open skies for Nigeria?
The need for a hub airport to serve west Africa has been around for some years but has yet to materialise.
Southern Africa has an award-winning hub at Johannesburg, especially following the refurbishments undertaken ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Eastern Africa has a hub airport emerging at Addis Ababa, which will be boosted by plans for a new airport able to handle as many passengers as London Heathrow.
While the region has a reputation for poor transport links, there is investment taking place in west African airport infrastructure. Burkina Faso is building a brand new airport 40km northeast of Ouagadougou, and Sierra Leone has also announced construction of a new airport.
A few years ago, a new ‘green field’ site for an airport was proposed north of Lagos but it has not materialised, and a few months ago it appeared that proposals for a new airport at Lekki, just outside Lagos, could finally become reality.
Ghana is moving ahead with public-private partnerships, such as the one funding investment at Tamale, and another at Kotaka, Accra’s international airport.
Indeed, Accra has been mentioned as a potential hub airport for west Africa with possible investment from China.
Consequently, what would be gained if such a hub were created? In September there were 2.8 million seats arriving at central and western African airports, up 13% from September 2010. Nearly two in every five seats – just over a million seats – were on a domestic route with Nigeria and Ghana accounting for the majority of these (573,000 and 104,000, respectively).
The market for international air services within the region makes up 24% of capacity but is only slightly more than to the whole of the rest of Africa.
Nigeria is an obvious choice for a west African hub as it is the most populous country in Africa and home to 170 million people. The population is set to continue growing and the economy has seen average real gross domestic product (GDP) grow at 6.3% between 2006 and 2014, according to the African Development Bank.
Lagos is the largest urban area on the continent with a population of close to 17 million but the airport itself is congested and without room to grow.
Obviously, the need for the right infrastructure is important but it is only part of the task. Airlines need to be willing to use the hub airport.
One of the policy decisions made by governments elsewhere, which have helped hubs such as Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and Singapore International Airport to develop and thrive, has been an open approach to air services.
Nigeria has more than 70 air service agreements but only 21 of these are used and only five reciprocated with Nigerian carriers able to match services provided by foreign carriers.
What if the Nigerian Government adopted a more open approach to airlines, allowing any carrier to operate as long as it met safety requirements?
Maybe this would be the incentive needed for investors to back a hub airport and for foreign airlines to take an active stake in a Nigerian airline.
Nigeria has not had a nationally-owned carrier since the liquidation of Nigeria Airlines in 2003 and Lagos-based Arik Air is now the largest. The Nigerian Government has suggested it is looking to create Nigeria One, a new Nigerian flag-carrier and could partner with other carriers, such as Ethiopian Airlines.
However, is a flag-carrier really what is needed to make a hub airport work?
An operating environment, which positively encouraged new air services and did not undermine existing privately-owned airlines, through government support for others, could be just the disruptive strategy needed to get regional aviation–and the regional economy – shifting up a gear.
5) Time for serious foreign equity in Africa’s airlines?
For an international industry, one of the strangely defining characteristics of aviation has been the tendency of national governments to protect airlines and traffic rights. The web of bilateral air service agreements and airline ownership rules that maintain this has been disrupted in recent years by airline owners, who have taken equity stakes in airlines based in other countries, and created JVs, which are ‘locally owned’.
There are numerous examples now. Etihad has equity stakes in Alitalia, Jet Airways, Airberlin, Niki, Air Serbia and Air Seychelles. It also has a partnership with SAA that extends beyond just code-sharing but stops short of an equity stake.
In Latin America, Avianca Holdings now owns a series of Avianca-branded subsidiaries across the continent. In Europe IAG is building a network, which includes British Airways, Iberia and Vueling.
Could the next disruptive strategy affecting African aviation be from foreign ownership and equity stakes? There are several that seem plausible.
What if IAG were to tempt SAA away from Star Alliance to Oneworld, changing the nature of the SAA long-haul network in the process?
Could Etihad add an African partner to its network of equity associates, which increasingly looks like a global alliance? An influx of equity might be good for Kenya Airways just now but partnership with Ethiopian would provide connectivity across Africa from Addis Ababa.
Are there Chinese airlines that are looking for a stake in an African carrier?
Hainan Airlines recently acquired Swissport, demonstrating that it is in expansion mode. Hainan Airlines has been public about wanting direct air services to Africa and recently announced an equity stake in British Airways franchise and full-service carrier, Comair, in South Africa, as well as the South African LCC Kulula.