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The airline sector has been one of the most vulnerable to both the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the various lock-down restrictions put in place to counter it.
Passenger numbers and revenues plummeted, with some airlines forced to mothball their entire operations. Africa’s biggest carriers have responded in very different ways and there is a growing feeling that the crisis has speeded up ongoing developments in the industry, with struggling airlines forced to take desperate measures and the few success stories becoming increasingly dominant.
Just 13 African countries have direct flights to more than 20 other African states. Kenya and Ethiopia lead the way, with direct flights to more than 30 other African countries, although this is perhaps no surprise given that Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways are among the three biggest operators in sub-Saharan Africa.
Pan African approach
To this end, one of Africa’s big five carriers, Kenya Airways is developing a pan-African approach similar to Ethiopian Airlines to reduce poor flight connectivity in the region as the carrier is beginning to expand its frontiers to remain relevant as it started cooperation with South African Airways which is the first of such partnership. The airline had an earlier partnership with Congo Airways, which is in Central Africa, very similar, but slightly different objective while the partnership with Congo Airways is to mutually support each other because Congo Airways have a lot of domestic markets but lacks the necessary equipment.
In an unedited transcript of the interview conducted by CAPA-Centre for Aviation made available to Aviation Metric, the Chief Executive Officer of Kenya Airways, Allan Kilavuka said, “We’re trying to help them in that regard. Support them in terms of giving them equipment and to support them fulfill their local demands and then mutually cooperate so that we can connect the Central to the East, and also Central to the West and then Central to the South. So that is with Congo Airways. With South African, we want to see how we can cover the African continent very effectively”.
“Again, we’re open to having other joiners, because this is not an exclusive club. We’ll have other people join us to continue with this ambition to consolidate the aviation space in Africa. This is going to be, in my opinion, one of the most fundamental developments in African aviation for a long time to come.
“If we do it successfully, I think it will change the face of aviation. It will help us grow. It will help reduce unit costs. It will help our efficiencies. It will help connectivity and so on and so forth. It will support the economy, and the socio-economic aspects, including political integration and so on it, can only be good news if we do this successfully. So we are very bullish about this”, he added.
Bridging connectivity gaps
He explained that aside from the Single Africa Air Transport Market (SAATM), otherwise known as Africa’s ‘Open Skies’, there was a talk about political integration which never happened but was hopeful that the Africa Continental Free Trade would quicken trade relations and movement within the continent.
“But having said that, I think that SAATM needs a lot of political will, I believe that our intended purpose of consolidating aviation in Africa will help perpetuate the ideals of SAATM. I think that SAATM, first of all, is a good idea. I mean, I think very few people would argue against it”.
Speaking on the Kenyan aviation market, the airline chief said the Kenyan market is small because it is relatively a small country but larger than the United Kingdom.
“So from an aviation standpoint, it’s not really huge. I mean, I’ll give you an example. For example, 15% of our operations are domestic. So if you want to think about maybe the Kenyan market, I would think more East African market, which includes Uganda and Tanzania, maybe Rwanda, and now maybe DRC, which is now coming in, and maybe South Sudan. So that’s what I would consider a more scalable market”.
He however said that his airline is now at between 70% and 75%, of 2019 level, which is actually pretty good, “considering that our vaccination rates are very low compared to the Western world. People are economically struggling because of the effects of pandemics. So I think 70%, 75% is a good thing. However, we still don’t see a lot of business traffic, which I guess is not surprising”.
Strong government’s intervention
He emphasized that the government’s intervention was quite strong in aviation and particularly strong in many nations across Africa, stressing that governments would continue to take a very active involvement in the sector moving forward.
To him, there is indeed a thin line because governments, on the one hand, admitting that they mean well, but said they’re not experts in running airlines.
“So what you want them to do is to be interested from a policy perspective to make it easier for us to operate, but stay out of the business of running the airline, because they’re not experts in the airline industry. So that’s really the conundrum. How do you get them to be involved and yet not involved in running the business?
“So for us is to really demonstrate what is, specifically, needed from a policy perspective, funding and so on. And then if we get that from them, then we demonstrate our abilities to run the airline efficiently because that’s their demand. If you run the airline efficiently, then they will not intervene. The problem is, if when they think that the airline is not being run the way it should, and they would like to intervene. So I think for us is just to continue engaging the government. They’re very, very important partners and not just our government, but governments around the world, very important partners”.Google+