Disruptions impact Africa’s air connectivity

The air transport industry in Africa has experienced a number of major disruptions over the last few decades, including health and economic crises that temporarily set back the industry.

But none was as devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic, which struck at a period that hit projected 150 million passengers in the continent.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which began as a localized disease in late 2019 degenerated into a global pandemic early in 2020, setting off frenzied reactions by governments and health authorities to contain the spread of the pandemic, including the lock-down of entire countries and closure of international borders by governments.

Apart from emergency and COVID-19 related flights, normal air traffic to and from Africa dried up for several months as international markets especially Europe and Asia and the US were also badly affected by COVID-19 lockdowns.

Though several African States opened up their airspace over the past few months, which have encouraged the gradual restart of intra-Africa air transport, the impact of several months of grounded airlines’ fleets and nearly zero-revenue for most African airlines wrought much devastation on the continent’s airlines. Africa’s inter-connectivity had been dealt a huge blow.

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Aircraft positioning for take-off

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts weaker recovery for Africa in 2020 and did not see it abating in 202.

In absolute numbers, IATA says, the Africa region is expected to see around 45 million travellers in 2021 compared to the 155 million in 2019; noting that “in 2021, demand is expected to strengthen to 45% of 2019 levels to reach close to 70 million travellers to/from/within the region.”

The devastating effect of COVID-19 led about four African airlines to stop operation, and another two in voluntary administration. Other airlines planning to return to operation before the COVID-19 struck now see restart as impossible, given thin markets and near-absence of financial support.

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Many more African airlines are in “serious financial distress”, and require financial relief from governments and support institutions to sustain their restart and recovery, even though there is hope for a full return to 2019 levels by late 2023.

The distress faced by African airlines has put the air transport ecosystem in Africa in real danger as 7.7 million air transport jobs on the continent are now threatened, says Muhammad Albakri, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Africa and the Middle East.

AFRAA says for African airlines, estimated revenue loss for 2020 is $9 billion, going by 21 October 2020 assessment.

A glimmer of hope appeared a few months ago when the African Development Bank (AfDB), African Export-Import Bank, the Africa Union (AU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), along with some State governments offered to support air transport and tourism restart and recovery in Africa with $300 billion, which many worry is inadequate and yet to reach especially the airlines already facing collapse.

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In addition, “The governments of Rwanda, Senegal, Côte D’Ivoire and Burkina Faso have pledged a total of $ 311 million in direct financial support to air transport,” says IATA.

As the airline industry in Africa looks to recover, the intensity and fatality of the COVID-19 pandemic on the population has magically and significantly reduced rather than worsened in most parts of Africa.

Wole Shadare