Given the weakness of ground based transport in Africa, particularly road and rail infrastructure, air travel is essential for African development.
Contrary to Jacob Zuma’s speech about Africa being the largest continent, it is in fact only the second-largest and second most-populous continent, after Asia. The continent has a land mass of about 30.37 million km² (including Madagascar), covers 6% of the Earth’s total surface area and about 20% of the total land area. With more than 1.2 billion people, Africa accounts for about 15% of the world’s population. And the population growth is frightening – Africa is expected to be the most populous region within 15 years.
Our vast continent is blessed with vast natural resources, yet most African countries are still crushingly poor and the continent continues to record appalling development metrics.
Although many historical (colonialism) and politico-economic (third world exploitation) excuses can be advanced for the continent’s unsatisfactory performance, it is a given that much higher socio-economic growth could be achieved if African states united their efforts to forge and implement common strategies for the harnessing of the continent’s potential. Thabo Mbeki imagined a United States of Africa and SAA’s Coleman Andrews had a vision for a large trans-national airline, rather than the small, struggling, underfunded and undermanaged state-owned disasters we are currently burdened with.
Like many other sectors in Africa, aviation lags behind and operates well below what should be its natural share of the international civil aviation market. With the only significant exception of Ethiopian, Africa’s airlines operate narrow route networks, sustained by non-economic bilaterals and are generally under-capitalised. Thus, they don’t have the resources or credibility to fund a modern fuel efficient and safe aircraft fleet.
They are therefore unable to compete with the global mega carriers. To reverse this trend and facilitate the growth of civil aviation, Africa’s leadership needs to create an enabling environment that attracts private sector capital into the industry.
Although, over the past decade, African air transport has increased by 6.6% per annum, making it the most rapid growth region after the Middle East, the absolute traffic figures remain low because of the small base.
Meanwhile, world airlines are going through a growth phase. They are predatorily seeking out new markets, particularly those currently occupied by inefficient airlines. Almost without exception, Africa is served by weak, dangerous and loss-making airlines – or none at all. The three Gulf carriers and other airlines have seen this opportunity and are climbing in.
African airlines can only survive by forming alliances and being strengthened by competition. This will provide the necessary transport interconnectivity for the long-awaited economic growth expected by the ‘African Renaissance’, driven by population growth, and specifically the growth of the middle class and the strong demand for natural resources. Without the transformation of the airline industry, the African Renaissance will continue to be largely still-born.