Reviving Africa’s Aviation Post-Pandemic

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Life across the continent has fundamentally changed, possibly for a very long time. In this brand-new world a trip to the grocery store, once so harmless and carefree, now elicits paranoia and distrust. Touching or being too close to someone has become unthinkable. With COVID-19 lurking everywhere, we are keeping our distance. 

In sectors such as aviation, the impact has been enormous. The future of air travel looks bleak with job cuts, bankruptcy and revenue losses hanging over each operator in the aviation value chain.

According to the International Air Travel Association (IATA), the continent’s losses are expected to reach $2 billion in 2020. Few, or any, passengers have travelled during this period, due to the varying travel restrictions imposed by governments to help contain the spread of COVID-19. Almost all African airports are still under lock down, with strict health guidelines for those traveling into the country.

Many national carriers are already operating in losses, with some of the hardest hit airlines like South African reporting a $3.02 billion revenue loss, risking 252,100 jobs and $5.1 billion in contribution to South Africa’s economy.

Africa’s most populous nation Nigeria has had 4.7 million fewer passengers resulting in a $0.99 billion revenue loss in the second quarter of this year. And whereas it’s considered to be the only profitable airlines on the continent, Ethiopian Airways has made a $0.43 billion revenue loss, with 500,500 jobs at risk and US$1.9 billion in contribution to Ethiopia’s economy on the line.

Even with this, many countries are reopening their air spaces to commercial flights. IATA’s Vice President for Africa and Middle East, Muhaammad Ali Albakri, however warns that African airlines will need an estimated $10 billion to ensure liquidity and revive the travel and tourism sector post-COVID-19. 

For what was known as the most comfortable means of transport, the game has now changed. Mandatory safety guidelines that urge health and safety are becoming the new normal.

A post-COVID flight is likely to be very different to any you’ve ever taken. The probability of masks becoming as important as a passport cannot be discounted. But how will airlines mitigate social distancing rules? Imagine a flight half full with no passengers in the middle seat – is this even possible? 

Some airlines have already expressed concerns on the new rules for travel. While speaking to Aljazeera in July, the CEO of Qatar airways Akbar Al-Baker said: “It will be very difficult to achieve social distancing in an aeroplane and that if enforced as regulators are trying to on commercial flights, it will be a huge dent on the operating cost of them airline. For example, if I introduce social distancing by keeping one seat empty between passengers, I will only be carrying 50% of load factor. If I do even more aggressive and keep one row empty behind a passenger, I will only carry 30% of the capacity of an aeroplane, which means I will have to put up the ticket price by over 300% to cover the cost of my operations.”

Lucy Oraeki is the director of Luela Travels in Lagos; just like many people employed in the sector, his business has been affected. 

“Like every business owner, who flies frequently, the first thing I expressed when the aviation sector opened was happiness because my business depends totally on it,” Lucy says. “I was a bit sceptical as well because I was concerned about safety as much as I am concerned about the survival of my business. But so far, I have been happy with the safety measures put in place. We are already planning various trips for our clients. Even though air travel has opened in Nigeria, we know we are not out of the woods yet because not all countries have opened to travellers from Nigeria. But hopefully and gradually, the coming months would see more countries opening up.”

Most African airlines have been operating in loses even before the pandemic. In 2019, IATA reported a $300 million net loss on the continent. Now with accumulated losses of $6 billion in just 6 months, and stringent restrictions to resume flying, the future of many African airlines remain uncertain. 

Where there’s a challenge also lies an opportunity, says Idriss Chedjou, the Managing partner at Prodigy Avia Solutions, one of Africa’s leading aviation. He maintains that the future is bright, regardless of the slow progress in the aviation sector. “Prior the COVID-19 pandemic, the continent was already suffering from lack of adequate inter-connectivity with key players focusing on specific markets, not forgetting the Single African Air Transport Market initiative (SATTM) being delayed by governments favouring their airlines protectionism. It’s time to turn a crisis into an opportunity for the continent. Several operators might not restart, indeed, but there has always been room for more players, which I personally hope will come from the private sector to ensure a certain level of proper governance currently being the main root cause of existing airlines’ challenges. As many could see it as an end, what if it could be a new beginning? Because the continent cannot develop its self without a reliable and sustainable air transport system,” says Idriss.

To minimize the impact on jobs and the broader African economy international travel organization are urging African governments to step up their efforts to aid the industry. Currently, Senegal is the only African nation to have issued a loan to support the Tourism and Air Transport sector, totalling $128 million dollars to date. Other African countries like Angola, Botswana, Chad, Egypt, Cote D’ Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa and Tunisia have announced support for the industry through direct corporate and industry tax relief. 

It’s now more than clear that the aviation sector could be another COVID-19 casualty in Africa, or it may find its resilience.

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