Resilience and recovery: Aviation in Africa

Mikail Houari – President Airbus Africa Middle East gives his thoughts on the next steps for African aviation.


(Image: Billypix)

As the world comes to grips with the pandemic's acute health and socio-economic impacts, today we are facing a new reality of unprecedented uncertainty.

COVID-19 has brought the aviation industry to a halt, and like everywhere else, it had a massive social, financial and economic impact in Africa. The grounding of flights has resulted in losses to the airlines and sectors dependant on aviation such as tourism and trade. However, COVID-19 has also demonstrated the intrinsic vital nature of aviation. Despite the turbulence caused by the pandemic, Africa has demonstrated its strong resilience. Aircraft continued to fly, serving nations around the world as the only mean of transport capable of delivering essential time-sensitive cargo. Ethiopia and the United Nations opened example a humanitarian transport hub at Addis Ababa airport to move supplies and aid workers across Africa to fight the coronavirus.

Prior to this pandemic, the outlook for air transport in Africa was extremely positive. Airbus' Global Market Forecast (GMF) 2019 predicted that passenger traffic to and from Africa would increase by 5.4% yearly over the next twenty years. This was in line with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predictions that Africa would be the second-fastest-growing aviation market in the 20 years leading to 2037, with passenger numbers expected to more than double — to 334 million — by that time.

Over the past twenty years, out of the 20 top worldwide economic performers, more than ten were African economies. The increased demand for air transport is a reflection of that growth. The impact that the aviation industry has had on the sustainable development of Africa cannot be overstated, and governments across the continent are leveraging on the industry’s ability to bring about economic transformation. Aviation not only gets people moving, but it also fosters regional integration, creates jobs and enables domestic, intra-African and global trade. According to the International Air Transport Association, across Africa, the industry directly supports 6.2 million jobs and contributes $56 billion to the continent's regional GDP.

To generate further activity and improve the state of air transport in Africa, governments, regional bodies, and financial institutions have developed air transport-specific initiatives.

Significant improvements to the industry have been made across the continent, including the creation of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) as well as the modernisation of fleets by national airlines. Today African carriers such as Ethiopian Airlines, Air Senegal, South African Airways, Air Cote d'Ivoire, EgyptAir, Air Mauritius Uganda Airlines and Air Tanzania, have chosen to operate some of the most technologically advanced aircraft such as the A350XWB, A330neo, A320neo and the A220.

The African continent has also made significant strides towards the expansion and improvement of airport infrastructure and air traffic management. Countries such as Morocco, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda and Ethiopia are expanding existing airports or building new ones.

Aerospace manufacturing is also happening on the continent. In South Africa, Morocco and Tunisia, for example, more than 35 African companies are involved in the manufacturing of Airbus commercial aircraft in areas such as design, engineering, production of aerodynamic, structural, communications, control surface, electronics, and cabin items. Such activities have enabled the creation of centers of learning, knowledge development, and innovation, thus supporting the creation of a pool of highly skilled aviation talent for the continent.

Although the real impact of the pandemic on Africa's airline industry is yet difficult to gage, the COVID-19 crisis poses a threat not only to the current African aviation value chain but also to the tremendous progress made to improve the entire air-transport ecosystem on the continent.

Considering the inherent and extensive nature of aviation and the boundless possibilities and opportunities, it offers Africa's socio-economic development - it seems necessary for all stakeholders to strongly support the sector. Indeed, the ability of Africa's aviation industry to recover from this global crisis will depend on the level of collaboration and support invested by all stakeholders to mitigate the effects of this unprecedented crisis.

Support from governments and development finance institutions will be particularly critical, be it with direct financial support, loan guarantees, or tax relief. We already see governments in Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Rwanda and Uganda taking actions.

For airlines, being adaptable will be crucial; with the expected decrease in passenger numbers, airline fleet composition and aircraft versatility will be put to the test. More than ever, it will be about flying the right aircraft at the right time, with flexible approaches to business models while operating economically efficient aircraft. Post-COVID will require tailored market and fleet strategies.

Furthermore, concerted effort with airlines, airports, and the authorities will be required to reassure people who rely on air travel. Through designing and engineering state-of-the-art passenger aircraft, we have made it a priority to safeguard every person who uses our products and services. Cabin air quality is meticulously controlled, providing safe and ideal conditions.

Renewed air circulates in the cabin every 2-3 minutes through highly efficient HEPA filters that remove 97-99.95% of microbes, viral and bacterial particles from the air, including COVID-19.

Moving forward, we believe there needs to be a fundamental focus on sanitisation throughout the entire passenger journey. Sanitary protection will become an essential cornerstone of air travel alongside safety, security, and the environment to which we have all become accustomed.

With every crisis comes opportunity, and the current climate might encourage better collaboration and integration in Africa. African carriers could choose to join forces, thus increasing competitiveness, creating regional hubs, and ultimately speeding up the full implementation of initiatives such as SAATM.

Aviation connects people, countries, and cultures, generates revenue, and improves the livelihood of millions of people. When the stakes are so high and the returns even higher, a successful and sustainable aviation industry in Africa should not be viewed as an option, but rather, as a vital sector, with immeasurable value.