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As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and demand for air transport starts to normalise, airports are among the first to feel the impact of the harm caused by the pandemic. However, this latest struggle holds important lessons and solutions for African airports.               

As we are seeing in the UK and other parts of the world, the effect of the prolonged Covid-19 travel restrictions is manifesting in airports becoming choke points as they struggle with insufficient people, depleted funds and weak balance sheets, which prevent them and their customer airlines from rapidly getting back up to speed.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), African airlines had a 69.5% rise in February compared to a year earlier, a large improvement compared to the 20.5% year-on-year increase recorded in January 2022 compared with the matching month in 2021. February 2022 capacity was up 34.7%.

The industry’s recovery in Africa has already been deferred a year thanks to the triple-whammy of the initially slow and still low vaccination rates, the discovery of the Omicron variant, and more recently the surge in fuel prices as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is a silver lining in that it gives Africa’s airports some time to acquire the capacity, systems and solutions to manage the recovery and future growth.

In Africa, so much economic activity depends on airports having sufficient capacity to facilitate efficient, reliable, secure and safe air transport services. Just as the 9/11 attacks ushered in a raft of security restrictions, most of which have been maintained, so Covid-19’s legacy will be a set of adjustable biosecurity protocols that airports will need to implement seamlessly to prevent further logjams.

The solution is for all airports — from mega-hubs to small municipal and regional facilities — to digitalise and automate time-costly processes like passenger processing and baggage handling. Agile cloud technology platforms that are efficient, flexible and scalable to fluctuating passenger volumes can help alleviate the pressure. By empowering passengers to use their mobile phones as a remote control for travel, we can reduce bottlenecks and offer a more seamless passenger journey.

Whether health status verification, check-in or boarding, digitalising the many steps of the passenger journey will boost passenger confidence and satisfaction. This will help airports and airlines quickly restart, scale-up and future-proof operations while looking for alternative revenue streams.

Until recently, tech-infrastructure costs and support requirements deterred many smaller African airports from investing in digital systems. However, capable and scalable cloud-based technology has become significantly more affordable. It is now also well within reach of smaller, regional airports that need to meet the combined needs to be integrated into the global air transport system and to be able to instantly switch-on additional capacity. 

By transforming the passenger experience and meeting their customer airlines’ demands for better efficiencies, smaller airports will be promoting themselves and the communities, industries and markets they serve as safe, convenient, competitive, agile and user-friendly destinations.

Over the past decades the air transport industry has encouraged governments, regulators and airport and airline operators to embrace digital technology. The result has been the advent of things we now take for granted, such as customer self-service check-in and self-baggage drop solutions, smartphone boarding passes and various mobile apps, and digital health declarations and trusted travel passes for storing and verifying boarding passes and Covid vaccination status.

The prints of Sita, the global technology provider for the air transport industry, are all over such technologies, and the post-pandemic recovery is a golden opportunity to accelerate and expand digitalisation and take full advantage of the benefits and opportunities it unlocks.

With the establishment of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area and implementation of its core supporting pillars, the Single Africa Air Transport Market (SAATM) and the Free Movement of Persons Protocol, we expect a steady uptick in intra-continental passenger and cargo traffic. Rapid urbanisation, population growth and large distances between markets remain undiminished drivers for air transport and travel to, from and within Africa. 

For SA, where a recent International Air Transport Association-commissioned study found that SAATM has the potential to create over 14,500 new sustainable jobs and contribute at least $283.9m to GDP, the social and economic benefits are far too valuable to pass up. But the opportunity will be squandered unless all airports — as well as land borders and seaports of entry — can operate safely, securely and efficiently.  

• El-Assaad is Sita president for Africa & the Middle East. 

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