THE inaugural flight by South African Airways (SAA) last week from Johannesburg to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, was a milestone in the relationship between the two powerhouses of Africa, WRITES DIANNA GAMES.
The launch of the route is not just about moving people between two strategic cities; it is symbolic of a greater connectedness between Africa’s two biggest economies that is long overdue.
The launch of the route between Johannesburg and Abuja came 19 years after SAA began flights to the commercial hub of Nigeria, Lagos, in 1998 — a route that became one of the fastest growing in SAA’s history and is still among the top three busiest for the airline in Africa.
In 2011, the SA-Nigeria Binational Commission increased the number of flights from seven to 10 each for both countries.
SAA flies seven times a week to Lagos and the three remaining slots are being used for the Abuja flights. The new route forms part of SAA’s turnaround strategy, and there are early signs of success.
The first return flight from Abuja to Johannesburg last week had a load factor of 67%.
Airline executives believe the route will be profitable in a reasonably short time.
There are many reasons why. First, many people who do not live in Lagos prefer to avoid the city if they can. The airport experience can be trying, with antiquated infrastructure and systems struggling to keep up with growing passenger volumes. Travelling from Abuja is easier and may attract more people to SA.
Second, the Abuja flights will provide a link for trading centres in northern Nigeria, allowing flights not just to SA, but to Southern Africa and to other regions such as Brazil, which has strong commercial ties with Nigeria.
The route will also make it easier for South African investors to connect to Nigeria’s administrative and political centre. What is more, it will facilitate interaction between the two governments.
The political dimension is significant. The choice of Abuja as SAA’s newest destination signals the fact that Nigeria is still an important partner for SA.
This will be cemented by the state visit to Nigeria by President Jacob Zuma in a few weeks.
An airline is an important diplomatic tool and the timing of the new SAA flight is good, coming at a time when there is a real willingness to build stronger ties between two countries that have had a complicated past relationship.
But this is being undermined by a few issues.
- Published in Business Day SA, 1 February, 2016