Around the world, airlines are enjoying an unprecedented period of economic prosperity. For the third year in succession, the airline industry will see a competitive return on investment.
However, once again Africa is failing to make the grade, even in this best of times. Barring just one or two exceptions, Africa’s airlines continue to lose money and require bail-outs from the state. Nigeria’s Arik Air is the latest to suffer this ignominy, despite being privately owned. The majority of Africa’s airlines remain anachronistically state owned, and, true to form, are faring even worse, as evidenced by the continual mismanagement of SAA and the other airlines, whose state owners cannot resist the temptation to interfere.
As Africa’s airlines continue to be an unprofitable and thus an underfunded embarrassment, they lose their best and brightest employees to greener (or sandier) pastures.
Aviation skills are one of the most portable in the world, thanks to the pervasiveness of English as the aviation lingua franca and the common standards established by the Chicago Convention. Enticed by better living conditions and prospects for career advancement and opportunities for their children, aviation professionals are both pushed by their local circumstances and pulled by the carrot of world-class living standards in the First or Second Worlds.
It is commonly observable that far more aviation professionals leave Africa for the First World than leave the First World for Africa. And so a key challenge faced by African airlines is the brain drain.
With the worldwide growth of aviation, there has been enormous demand for aviation skills. Until recently, the rate of leaving employees, although damaging, had been, to some extent, manageable. Now, however, airlines and civil aviation authorities are struggling to replace the losses through their normal training and hiring processes.
The pending huge manpower shortfall cannot be fully addressed, at least in the short term, with the existing training capacity globally. It is essential for African countries to make a huge investment in training. The best way is to encourage private sector training institutions. South Africa has traditionally led the way in this regard. However, the South African government is now showing remarkable ineptness in facilitating or even just supporting this essential growth in training. In his column this month, Mike Gough describes the impossibility of trying to keep student pilots legally in South Africa due to the linkage of student visas to the training schools’ ATO licences, which have to be renewed annually, but which CAA inefficiencies make impossible to complete in time for the visa renewals.
This is typical of the basic failure of governance, which will have far reaching negative effects on the African airline industry and on Africa’s ability to keep up with the economic growth of the rest of the world – let alone enjoy the still much awaited African renaissance.
It is government failures such as this that will continue to impoverish African aviation, and, through that failure, to develop the prerequisite transport interconnectivity needed for the global competitiveness of the entire continent.