Hot hubs for African expansion

With new airports and terminal expansion projects on the rise across Africa, Chloe Wilson reports on how the competition is heating up in the race to become the continent’s primary aviation gateway.

It’s no secret that Africa’s aviation market is one with huge potential. The forecasts for the sector continue to be positive with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) projecting that Africa will be the fastest growing region to 2036 – 5.9% per annum – for a total market of 400 million passengers annually.
Challenges still abound but the forecast growth in passenger traffic is impressive. So, too, are the opportunities it brings for the continent’s airport infrastructure and, particularly, for those destinations looking to align themselves as Africa’s primary aviation hubs.
You only have to look at cities around the world with hub airports and their economic success to understand that the two go hand-in-hand. Take London, New York, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Dubai or Doha. They are all flourishing cities with strong economies and major air transport hubs. And now you can add the likes of Addis Ababa and Casablanca to that list.
Last year, data intelligence specialist, ForwardKeys, revealed that Addis Ababa had grown its volume of international transfer passengers to sub-Saharan Africa for five years in a row (2013-2017). It also highlighted that Bole Airport, which has been upgraded with a new terminal capable of handling up to 22 million passengers and costing $345 million, had overtaken Dubai as the major transit hub for long-haul air traffic to and from Africa.
Getaneh Adera, director of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, admitted that this is, in part, “thanks to the ever-expanding international routes of Ethiopian Airlines, which have now reached 123 including more tan 60 to African cities”.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for ForwardKeys revealed: “In the six months from August 2019 to January 2020, airline capacity across the continent looks like it will be up 8.4%.” He added: “Ethiopian Airlines, itself, is adding 9.2% in terms of capacity.”
As the hub for Africa’s largest flag-carrier, Bole already serves hundreds of flights each day. And, on July 17, the airport marked a daily record at its terminal with 310 flights and 29,528 passengers passing through its doors.
Much of Ethiopia’s success is being attributed to a new-found confidence in the wake of reforms carried out by Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, since he took office in April 2018. These include signing a peace deal with Eritrea, a new e-visa policy introduced in June 2018, which allows all international visitors to apply for a visa online, and the promise to open Ethiopia’s markets to private investment.
Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport remains Africa’s biggest air transport hub in terms of capacity (it can handle 26 million passengers per year).
“Historically, South Africa has been the economic hub of Africa,” according to Fundi Sithebe, Airports Company South Africa’s (ACSA’s) COO.
However, problems have been mounting for both the country’s ailing economy and its’ flag-carrying airline.
South African Airways has struggled in recent years with a revolving door of CEOs. The airline’s latest boss, Vuyani Jarana, resigned at the end of August, citing uncertainty with funding, slow decision-making processes and a lack of commitment from the government, resulting in the delay of a turnaround plan for the airline. And, with SAA decreasing its international seat capacity at OR Tambo Airport, Sithebe has also raised concerns over the lack of a “dominant airline” at the airport and the “real threat” of Johannesburg losing its leading hub status to airports in east and west Africa.
It is no longer just a threat. ForwardKeys’ data shows that if you look at the total share of Africa’s aviation traffic and total growth for the year, Addis Ababa is head and shoulders ahead of its competitors. It has an 11% share of traffic and 13.2% growth. Johannesburg, meanwhile, has 8% share and 0.1% growth.
In third place is Casablanca with 7% share and 4.4% growth, while Nairobi is also in a strong position with 6% share and 9.8% growth. In fifth place, Marrakech has a 5% share but an impressive 21.8% growth.
Still, OR Tambo isn’t being knocked from its pole position without a fight. Various initiatives have been implemented recently to enhance the passenger experience, including smart security screening systems and engagement with the department of home affairs on increasing staffing levels at immigration and passport control, as well as a new long-term parking facility.
ACSA also announced in February 2019 that phase one of the construction of its Western Precinct development has commenced and is due for completion in 2020.
The airport group is reportedly spending R4.5 billion ($305 million) in developing the new 180,000sqm precinct, which will incorporate offices, a hotel, retail space and conferencing facilities. It will house ACSA’s corporate headquarters, as well as the South African Civil Aviation Authority.
The development is all part of ACSA’s strategy to expand the airport’s offering and drive new sources of growth for the entire region, in line with ambitious plans to become an airport city.
However, despite its remodelling, the airport now faces further competition for low-cost and domestic traffic from nearby Lanseria Airport. The privately owned hub, which is also located in Gauteng province, currently accommodates around 2.5 million passengers per annum. And, while most of Lanseria’s passenger traffic is comprised of domestic travellers, the airport is looking to build its international traffic in line with becoming a regional hub.
In February last year, it began an extension programme, which will enable the airport to handle around five million passengers per annum.
Elsewhere on the continent, ForwardKeys’ data shows exciting growth among other destinations, particularly in east Africa.
Kigali in Rwanda has a 1% share of air passenger traffic and is showing 7.4% growth, while neighbouring Entebbe, in Uganda, has a 1.4% share, but 16.2% growth.
Meanwhile, in west Africa, Ivory Coast’s Abidjan has 1.8% share and 1.1% growth, while Dakar, in Senegal, has a 1.9% share but -0.8% growth.
IATA has already identified Rwanda as among the top 10 fastest-growing air passenger markets in the world, while Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, has highlighted aviation as one of the key elements of the country’s future prosperity.
Attention has now turned to Rwanda’s airport infrastructure to ensure it can keep pace with the anticipated growth in air passenger traffic. A new airport is currently under construction in Bugesera province, approximately 25km south of the Rwandan capital. Although the completion date remains uncertain, once finished it will replace Kigali’s existing international airport and is set to boost traffic to and from the region.
Entebbe International Airport is also undergoing a significant upgrade and expansion project as part of a 20-year national aviation masterplan, for which the first phase is expected to be complete in May 2021, according to Uganda’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) board chairman, Edward Mike Ndawula.
“We have quite a number of projects on the expansion of the airport and we are on schedule; the first phase of the expansion will be complete in May 2021,” he said. The work will be carried out in three phases through to 2034.
In the meantime, to handle the growing number of business and leisure passengers visiting the country, digital security firm, Gemalto, partnered with local partner, SCINTL, to boost capacity at Entebbe Airport, by installing e-kiosks at the airport.
Although Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport remains a major hub for aviation activity in east Africa, it is overshadowed by Bole. However, following in Ethiopia’s footsteps and to improve its positioning as a regional hub, the transport committee in Kenya’s parliament now wants to place ownership of Jomo Kenyatta alongside the struggling Kenya Airways with the same aviation holding company.
In Ivory Coast, which Jetex president, Salem Youssef, has previously described as “west Africa’s economic powerhouse”, Felix Houphouët Boigny Abidjan International Airport is undergoing various modernisation and construction projects. It was named Africa’s ‘most improved’ airport in Airports Council International (ACI) World’s ASQ Awards in March 2019.
Meanwhile, Dakar’s Blaise Diagne International Airport opened at the end of December 2017 following an investment of around $575 million and more than a decade of development and delays. Currently capable of accommodating up to three million passengers a year, a second phase of development will increase the site’s capacity to 10 million passengers a year by 2035.
Having opened a new terminal in 2018, Ghana also has ambitious plans to develop Accra’s Kotoka International Airport into west Africa’s largest gateway.
Similarly, the Federal Government of Nigeria has revealed plans to invest $38 million in rehabilitation works at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. When the airport was built in 1979, it had an annual handling capacity of 300,000 passengers. However, in the last three years, the number of passengers has grown up to eight million, according to the minister of state for aviation, Hadii Sirika.
Casablanca’s Mohammed V International Airport also has huge potential as an aviation hub, particularly with Royal Air Maroc growing its fleet and investing in Casablanca as its home hub.
The recent Terminal 1 extension project (which was inaugurated by King Mohammed VI at the beginning of last year) will increase the airport’s overall capacity to 14 million passengers a year.