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Covid-19 pushes African airlines to the brink

Opportunity for intra-African airlines

For carriers to get up and running again, countries must safely reopen borders. Africa, with its relative lack of Covid-19 cases, could grow in prominence as a tourist destination. Positive signs from vaccine-makers Pfizer and Moderna in November bode well for the large-scale resumption of flying.

The pandemic will leave its mark on the African aviation sector nonetheless. It could lead to smaller airlines, with reduced fleets of smaller aircraft, impacting capacity and fares, says Charlton. It could also affect trade on a continent where travel between countries remains a major obstacle. Africa’s ambitious continental free-trade zone, agreed in 2019 by 54 countries and forecast to boost regional income by up to 7% a year, relies on a solid aviation sector.

Outdated regulation and flawed business models mean connections in Europe for intra-African flights are all too common. With most countries, from Zambia to Tanzania and Morocco to Equatorial Guinea, having a national carrier, many airlines were running flights at 50-70% capacity before the pandemic. “It’s very hard to break even or make money in empty aeroplanes,” says Charlton.

“Prior to the onset of the pandemic, African aviation was poised to become one of the fastest growing air transport markets in the world,” generating $72bn each year in continental GDP, said Dr Fang Liu, International Civil Aviation Organisation secretary general, in November. But she stressed the need for greater liberalisation, intra-regional resilience and better regulation.

“Given the potential for liberalisation, there’s a positive story for African aviation,” says Charlton. “But they are going to need to be flexible.”

The upshot of the pandemic could be the root-and-branch transformation of Africa’s aviation sector to a more streamlined industry. Airlines running at a substantial loss prior to the pandemic are unlikely to survive without government aid.

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Adapted from African Business. Isaac Khisa contributed to this story.

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