A DECADE ago, regional airline Air Afrique, owned by nearly a dozen African governments, collapsed under a mountain of debt after 41 years of flying. The airline, launched by former French colonies that had gained political sovereignty, was owned by 11 states in Central and West Africa with few transport links to each other.
At its launch in Cameroon in 1961, heads of state said the airline represented the co-operation that was possible between independent states of Africa. Air France and independent French airline UTA had a significant stake in the enterprise.
For a long time it served its purpose of moving people around a region where governments could not afford national airlines and independent local airlines did not exist. But these governments had no experience of running a business and, over the years, the service declined as debts grew.
On the other side of the continent, East African Airways (flying from 1946 to 1977) had been established by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. It too folded with debts amid deteriorating relations between the participating states. In the late 1970s, all three countries established their own national airlines, making it redundant.
South African Airways (SAA) has been involved in two regional arrangements that both ended badly. The first was Alliance Air in East Africa and the second was a joint venture with former national airline Nigeria Airways. Both arrangements died a sad death amidst infighting and acrimony.
Given the history, it was interesting to read that two new regional airlines are in the pipeline. One is EcoAir, a project of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States. The other is Cemac Air, designed to serve six central African states that are members of the regional economic body Cemac.
The idea for EcoAir has been around almost since the demise of Air Afrique but has yet to get off the ground. Cemac Air appears to be at an advanced stage and it has signed up Air France as its strategic partner after it terminated an air services agreement with SAA, its original partner in the venture.
The rationale for both airlines is the fact that carriers operating in the region mostly offer an unreliable and expensive service and people struggle to move around the region by air.
The situation is different in East Africa, where African carriers are investing heavily in expansion and new entrants such as low-cost British brand easyJet are set to provide stiff competition for customers.
In West Africa, there are a number of privately owned airlines plying the region, particularly from Nigeria, but the penetration and frequency are generally low. Scheduling can be erratic and costs are high on many routes. Given the history, it is questionable whether such initiatives will be more successful than their predecessors. There is nothing to suggest that, despite the promises of bureaucrats that these will be private sector-run enterprises, the politicians won’t do what they do best — meddle.
It is government intervention in the market that generally accounts for the problems in, rather than the success of, such ventures. Look, for example, at the poor state of Air Malawi and Air Zimbabwe. SAA, too, is mired in debt despite being Africa’s top airline.
Despite the positive prognosis of African growth rates, aviation faces tough times, with increasing competition, punishing fuel costs, high airport taxes and declining tourist numbers. Low-cost airlines struggle to survive against protected national carriers. The aviation industry is also constrained by the fact that travel between countries is still based on restrictive bilateral agreements rather than the liberalised “open skies” policy that African governments have signed up to but failed to put into practice.
Air Afrique’s early success was based on the political co-operation that was a by-product of the heady days of independence. But now there is much less of it, as is highlighted by trade barriers and visa restrictions between countries and problems in getting regional infrastructure built.
Aviation is an ego industry for states. To run a regional airline properly requires recognising that good air links between states are a key driver of growth. It also requires recognising that there is no place for egotistical nationalism. That’s the hard part.