African Airlines Take Off With Clipped Wings

(file photo).

The COVID-19 pandemic brought everyday air traffic to a halt. But African airlines are preparing to take to the skies once more. Many airlines are facing a difficult path ahead to stay competitive.

Many passenger planes remain firmly on the ground around the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. In Africa too, radars picked up very little movement in the sky. But since the beginning of June, air traffic over the continent has increased.

"Most of the airlines in Africa have started operations," South African aviation expert Phuthego Mojapelo told DW. Two of the countries low cost airlines, FlySafair and Mango Airlines have already resumed flights. Both are affiliated with the national airline South African Airways (SAA), which filed for bankruptcy before the outbreak in December 2019.

The South African government decided not to continue funding the airline in April 2020. According to authorities, the state no longer wanted to pump money into the bankrupt airline -- it was now needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic instead.

"SAA is developing a plan of starting a new airline, SAA 2.0," explains Mojapelo. "That plan is still before the unions and creditors and they still have to vote on the plan."The failure of SAA leaves a big gap, however -- it was one of Africa's largest airlines, along with Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways.

High losses for the big three

Kenya Airways has also experienced significant losses and is currently going through the process of being nationalized. The most financially stable of Africa's big three airlines -- Ethiopian Airlines -- had already flagged a loss of $550 million (€488 million) in April.

"That would have been our income if we were able to fly at full capacity," Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO, Tewolde GebreMariam, told DW. According to the International Civil Aviation Association (ICAO), African airlines are at risk of losing $6 billion in revenue compared to 2019 and three million jobs.

But now long-haul flights are on the cards again: Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways plan to fly to Paris, Geneva and Brussels again this month -- albeit on a reduced schedule.

Passengers at low risk of infection

But will this increase in air traffic contribute to the spread of coronavirus? Mojapelo is optimistic that passengers will be safe: "Most of our aircraft in Africa are fitted with HEPA, a highly efficient filter, which makes sure that the virus does not survive in the airplane."

Passengers also have their body temperature measured in South African airports and rows on the aircraft are allowed to be fully occupied. South Africa's Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula emphasized that there is a lower risk of infection on board than inside a normal closed room.

German aviation expert Cord Schellenberg also believes the environment inside an aircraft poses very little danger to passengers. "Worldwide, airlines will be ensuring that people are maintaining distance on the ground during check-in, at the gate and at the baggage counter," he told DW.

Wearing masks on board also helps to stop the spread of the virus, as well as removing and replacing the air conditioning systems that allow air to flow in from the cabin ceiling.

What about ticket prices?

Airlines are operating on the assumption that it will take some time for the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels. This could have an impact on ticket prices.

So far, prices have remained the same on the domestic market, explains Mojapelo. He has a positive outlook on the future of the industry: "Africa is a magnet for tourists and the airlines will continue to position themselves for this business. The continent is also a popular destination for conferences, so the industry will recover when the pandemic wanes."

But his colleague Joachim Vermoorten is more skeptical about the overall impact of the coronavirus crisis, which has hit South Africa particularly hard. "The market has certainly not returned to normality," he told DW. "For that to happen, all air travel restrictions would have to be removed and air travel should be freely accessible for bookings, including leisure travellers. People have gotten used to video conferencing and the personal distance issue is still a major factor to consider."

Cheap tickets guarantee demand

According to Schellenberg, the price of an airline ticket is an important tool that can attract travellers. He expected private travellers will be offered cheaper prices to increase the demand for a trip to Africa. In contrast, he believes that business travellers will have to dig deeper into their pockets if the market picks up again in the future. It remains open as to whether these customers will fly in first or business class as usual, or fall back on cheaper economy tickets.

"Many African airlines will find it economically difficult to fly to healthy regions," says Schellenberg. "They need government support, like what has been seen in Europe, the US and Asia."

Both political will and economic opportunities are crucial when it comes to helping the industry bounce back. Employees could be paid this way, and the rental or purchase rates of the aircraft could also be covered. It all comes down to economic efficiency: In order to remain competitive with the current potential of passengers, Schellenberg believes only low-consumption, modern aircraft will help.

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