African airlines take off with clipped wings | Africa | DW | 07.07.2020
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African airlines take off with clipped wings

The coronavirus pandemic brought everyday air traffic to a halt. But airlines across the African continent are preparing to take to the skies once more. Many airlines are facing a difficult path to stay competitive.

Many passenger planes remain firmly on the ground around the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. In Africa, too, radar is picking up little movement in the sky. But, since the beginning of June, air traffic over the continent has increased.

"Most of the airlines in Africa have started domestic flights," the South African aviation expert Phuthego Mojapelo told DW. Four of South Africa's low-cost airlines — CemAir, Airlink, FlySafair and Mango Airlines — have already resumed flights.

Mango Airlines is affiliated with the national airline South African Airways (SAA), which filed for bankruptcy protection, a business-rescue process, in December 2019 before the coronavirus outbreak.

In April 2020, the South African government said it wouldn't continue funding the loss-making airline. According to authorities, the state no longer wanted to pump money into the airline, which has not shown a profit since 2011. Money was needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic instead.

"SAA is developing a plan of starting a new airline, SAA 2.0," explains Mojapelo. "That plan is still before the unions and creditors, who still have to vote on it."

The grounding of SAA leaves a big gap, however — it was one of sub-Saharan Africa's largest airlines, along with Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways.

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi (Getty Images/AFP/T. Karumba)

At Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, maintenance work was carried out while travel restrictions were in place

High losses for the big three

Kenya Airways has also experienced significant losses and is currently going through the process of being nationalized. The most financially stable of Africa's big three airlines — Ethiopian Airlines — had already flagged a loss of $550 million (€488 million) in April.

"That would have been our income if we were able to fly at full capacity," Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO, Tewolde GebreMariam, told DW.

According to the International Civil Aviation Association (ICAO), African airlines are at risk of losing $6 billion in revenue compared to 2019 and 3 million jobs.

But now long-haul flights are on the cards again: Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways plan to fly to Paris, Geneva and Brussels again this month — albeit on a reduced schedule.

Read more: Airbus to cut 15,000 jobs due to coronavirus setback

Passengers at low risk of infection

But will this increase in air traffic contribute to the spread of coronavirus? Mojapelo is optimistic that passengers will be safe: "Most of our aircraft in Africa are fitted with HEPA, a highly efficient filter, which makes sure that the virus does not survive in the airplane."

Passengers also have their body temperature measured in South African airports. Rows on the aircraft are allowed to be fully occupied.

South Africa's Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula emphasized that there is a lower risk of infection on board than inside a normal closed room.

A man has his temperature taken before boarding a South African Airways flight (picture-alliance/Pedro Portal/M. Herald)

Passengers traveling with South African Airways in April were required to have their temperature taken

German aviation expert Cord Schellenberg also believes the environment inside an aircraft poses very little danger to passengers. "Worldwide, airlines will be ensuring that people are maintaining distance on the ground during check-in, at the gate and at the baggage counter," he told DW.

Wearing masks on board also helps to stop the spread of the virus, as well as removing and replacing the air conditioning systems that allow air to flow in from the cabin ceiling.

Read more: How is coronavirus changing air travel?

What about ticket prices?

Airlines are operating on the assumption that it will take some time for the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels. This could have an impact on ticket prices.

So far, prices have remained the same on the domestic market, explains Mojapelo. He has a positive outlook on the future of the industry: "Africa is a magnet for tourists and the airlines will continue to position themselves for this business. The continent is also a popular destination for conferences, so the industry will recover when the pandemic wanes."

An empty airport parking lot in Dakar, Senegal (picture-alliance/Zumapress/S. Souici)

An empty airport parking lot in Dakar, Senegal in mid-March while travel restrictions kept the vast majority of aircraft grounded

But his colleague Joachim Vermoorten is more skeptical about the overall impact of the coronavirus crisis, which has hit South Africa particularly hard.

"The market has certainly not returned to normality," he told DW. "For that to happen, all air travel restrictions would have to be removed and air travel should be freely accessible for bookings, including leisure travelers. People have gotten used to video conferencing and the personal distance issue is still a major factor to consider."

Cheap tickets guarantee demand

According to Schellenberg, the price of an airline ticket is an important tool that can attract travelers. He expected private travelers will be offered cheaper prices to increase the demand for a trip to Africa.

In contrast, he believes that business travelers will have to dig deeper into their pockets if the market picks up again in the future. It remains open as to whether these customers will fly in first or business class as usual, or fall back on cheaper economy tickets.

"Many African airlines will find it economically difficult to fly to healthy regions," says Schellenberg. "They need government support, like what has been seen in Europe, the US and Asia."

Both political will and economic opportunities are crucial when it comes to helping the industry bounce back. Employees could be paid this way, and the rental or purchase rates of the aircraft could also be covered. It all comes down to economic efficiency: In order to remain competitive with the current potential of passengers, Schellenberg believes only low-consumption, modern aircraft will help.


A previous version of this article stated erroneously that FlySafair was an affiliate of South African Airways: it is not. The article also stated that two of South Africa's low cost airlines had commenced domestic flights, whereas four have started flying. 

These errors have now been corrected. The Africa department apologizes for the errors.

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