The opening up of the airline industry in Africa would create opportunities for trade, development and job creation. Picture: REUTERS
The opening up of the airline industry in Africa would create opportunities for trade, development and job creation. Picture: REUTERS

Africa’s natural resources and burgeoning young population are the ingredients for accelerated growth.

The Mo Ebrahim Foundation reports that 60% of the continent’s population of more than 1.2-billion is under the age of 25. Yet the UN’s Human Development Index, for example, has found that in every African country there is more inequality now than there was in 2010.

As a native of Angola who has lived on several continents, I am bemused that Africa seems forever on the cusp of economic greatness. It may seem insular to suppose that the aviation sector will help to trigger that greatness, but we should not underestimate its potential.

After years of false starts and frustrated efforts, Africa is finally moving towards a single air market, more commonly known as an open skies framework: the liberalisation of commercial aviation to create a free-market environment.

This will mean airlines can fly between any two African cities without having to do so via their home hub airport, thus eliminating a costly and time-consuming journey.

Open skies is likely to greatly improve access to Africa and movement within the vast continent. It will stimulate competition and demand for seats and cargo space within Africa and between the continent and the world

For example, a two-hour flight on a Belgium-based airline from Freetown, Sierra Leone to Banjul, Gambia has to fly via Brussels, a three-day journey. Open skies would not only end this slightly absurd route, but unlock expansion in Africa’s aviation sector.

A 2010 World Bank study found that restriction of air markets hampered growth in air traffic, inflated fares and harmed airline safety. Africa’s aircraft departure fees are 30% higher than the global average.

Many African governments have realised the need to institute open skies and its proponents have been working to achieve that for more than 20 years. That has slowly come to fruition, with commitments from 23 AU member states. The remaining 32 states are being encouraged to comply.

If it seems Africa’s aviation sector is behind the curve compared to the rest of the world in terms of liberalisation and modernisation, it is worth pointing out that the global airline industry is very young.

Humankind has been flying heavier-than-air craft for a little more than a century.

Passenger air travel gained impetus after the Second World War, when aviation technology had substantially advanced, military airfields were converted for commercial use and bombers and cargo aircraft had seating installed.

The next tipping point came in 1969, when the Boeing 747 jumbo jet made long-haul international air travel affordable and opened up the possibility of overseas holidays. The sector as we know it has existed for less than 50 years.

The pioneers of the international aviation sector had no precedents. Nothing of its sort had existed, so they used maritime legislation as a template and this is why the sector has some arcane regulations.

Regulations governing seafaring nations’ merchant navies were replicated in the airline sector as flag carriers.

Business and tourism will be the most obvious and immediate beneficiaries

Partly as a legacy of that, the aviation sector is far more heavily regulated in terms of ownership and expansion than, for example, the pharmaceuticals industry. Some rethinking of that is taking place, resulting in open skies, for example.

Open skies is likely to greatly improve access to Africa and movement within the vast continent. It will stimulate competition and demand for seats and cargo space within Africa and between the continent and the world. Customers will be able to access services where and when they want them.

Business and tourism will be the most obvious and immediate beneficiaries. According to the international Air Transport Association, Africa has just 2.2% of the global airline passenger share, but 16% of the world’s population: an indication of the potential for growth in the sector in the coming years.

Africa also has a number of fine, large airports, many of which are underutilised. Open skies could help ensure these are used to their full potential.

That growth will help drive a demand for personnel, which mirrors a global trend: Boeing’s most recent market outlook estimates that Africa will need 20,000 new pilots, 24,000 new technicians and 26,000 new cabin crew by 2035.

Considering that the 10 countries with the youngest populations are all in Africa, this will be a boon for youngsters seeking aviation careers.

Boeing has instituted an internship programme to help nurture young talent in Africa, and works closely with airlines across the continent, as it has done for more than 60 years.

One example is aviation firm Comair, which now has a 40% share of the South African market and has operated profitably for more than 70 years. It now trains pilots and cabin crew for 37 airlines and its training facility is doubling in capacity to meet demand.

In 2019 Comair will take delivery of the first of its eight Boeing 737 MAX8s as the final phase of its fleet replacement strategy for its two brands, kulula.com and British Airways.

There is no single catalyst to realising Africa’s potential for socioeconomic development, but liberalisation of aviation, modernisation of the sector and empowerment of human capital to embrace opportunities in that sector could be a powerful driver of growth in the coming years. Watch this airspace.

• Santos is the MD for Boeing sub-Sahara Africa and director of international sales in Africa.

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