The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the aviation industry globally, including Africa. The low operational capacity and passenger throughput is having an adverse financial effect on direct service providers such as airlines and airports and ancillaries such as hospitality services and aviation fuel suppliers.
According to Africa Union data, the continent’s tourism and travel sectors may lose $50bn and at least 2m direct and indirect jobs. IATA estimates that 5m African livelihoods are at risk, and aviation-supported GDP could fall by as much as $37bn.
Such drastic losses in operational revenues and need for meeting fixed operational expenditures can limit financial and material resources appropriated for safety management and improvements.
One of the important lessons learned during this period is that resilience and diversification of operational strategies can be effective. One of Africa’s biggest carriers, Ethiopian Airlines, has managed to methodically align limited financial resources behind a carefully crafted dependence on route network optimization and massive cargo operations that has become a global model for sustainable operations.
According to Bloomberg, Ethiopian Airlines has covered all fixed costs and made a small profit for the fiscal year ended July 2020. The airline stripped out seats from 25 passenger aircraft and enlisted 20 more planes whose seats were left in place and the cargo was secured with safety belts. The airline was further aided by the UN's decision to open a humanitarian transport hub in Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian Airlines has leveraged proactive operational safety, cost-effective hub services, internal maintenance services, human-resource training and building on local contents to stay resilient.
Minimal government interference, despite being a government-owned carrier, has also augured well for their operations during this precarious time. That is a model that other African aviation service providers can adopt. The need for strategic allocation of financial resources to drastically restructure existing aviation assets and providing the required corporate governance for a successful turnaround is more than needed for aviation service providers in Africa.
I think that in terms of proactive safety management there must be implementation of safety management systems (SMS) across all safety-related disciplines in all African States. As part of the SMS, there must be concerted efforts at the exchange of safety information among African States which can promote the timely resolution of safety-critical items identified through safety risk management components of SMS.
Another very important lesson is the need for pre-pandemic emergency planning by all aviation service providers that will be inclusive of the SMS. Regular simulations of pandemic outbreaks and how airlines can contain them will be expedient.
There should be plans for tracking pandemic hotspots as part of operational strategies and testing/vaccination used as an alternative to quarantines.
Business contingency funds for such unforeseen scenarios may be a good idea by both governments and aviation service providers. Regular training and awareness on pandemic effects on aviation and mitigation strategies by aviation regulators and service providers will be helpful.
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