Africa's airlines have registered low passenger volumes since the onset of the COVID pandemic. The aviation industry's progress in connecting the continent over the past decade is now at stake.
Many prominent carriers like Kenya Airways have trimmed business trips across the continent down to an absolute minimum. Popular destinations to Asia, Europe, and North America have also been affected.
In February, Air Namibia, one of the most historic airlines on the continent, ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy. For a year now, South African Airways has grounded its fleet. It had been struggling even before the COVID-19 struck.
Immaculate Maina was a frequent flyer -- before the pandemic. She often made business trips from her home country Kenya across the continent and liked to work from VIP lounges at airports.
"I miss being where I want to be and working the way I want to be, but because of the pandemic, the frequent flyer program doesn't exist anymore," she told DW. The VIP lounges that were her favorite working spaces have been converted into coronavirus test centers.
Passenger numbers slumped by more than half
Around 54 million passengers flew by plane within Africa during the pandemic in 2020. In the previous year, twice as many traveled. According to figures from the African Airlines Association (AFRAA), the the turnover of airlines on the continent fell by around €8.6 billion ($8 billion), a hard blow to an industry that raced from one record to the next before the crisis. And there is no end in sight to the misery.
"We know that 2021 will also be a challenging year," said Abderahmane Berthe, the secretary-general of AFRAA. "Many airlines are on the verge of bankruptcy while others are already winding up their operations."
"Unfortunately, the support we have asked governments and other donors to provide is only coming in very slowly," Berthe added. He points out the new virus variants and the slow vaccination rate on the continent.
The global slump in intercontinental air traffic also affects intra-African connections -- with severe consequences.
"It may be that passengers have to fly through hubs outside the continent if they want to go from one African country to another," said Berthe. His association is trying to ensure cooperation between the airlines to fill the gaps that have arisen.
A blessing in disguise for other airlines
However, some actors also see the current crisis as an opportunity. After Air Namibia ended its operations in February, Africa's number one carrier -- Ethiopia Airlines -- seized the opportunity and expanded its range of flights to Windhoek.
The small South African airline Airlink also reacted quickly and offered flights on former Air Namibia routes for a few weeks now. Also, low-cost airline LIFT, was launched in Johannesburg in December -- in the middle of South Africa's second COVID wave.
"This shows that despite the pandemic and its economic impact, there is still some confidence among some investors," said Phuthego Mojapele, an independent aviation expert and consultant from South Africa.
"There is little that the airlines can do; everyone will have to make drastic changes in the near future," Mojapele said in an interview with DW.
According to Allan Kilavuka, CEO of Kenya Airways,one of these changes are already emerging. "We will have to diversify our business, and freight is at the top of the list." The airline suffered a 60% drop in passenger numbers in 2020, resulting in a record loss of around €277 million. Nevertheless, Kilavuka remains optimistic. "We want to grow and reduce our costs at the same time."
Digital COVID-19 passport as an opportunity?
Ethiopian Airlines has shown that cargo aviation can be an alternative in corona times. The largest airline on the continent counted on the increased demand for goods traffic early on and had 25 passenger planes converted as early as March 2020.
According to its own information, Ethiopian Airlines has made more than 5,500 cargo flights with converted aircraft since then. Customers include the World Health Organization, aid agencies, and UNICEF, who use the offer to distribute food, medicines, medical protective equipment, and vaccines.
How long it will take before passenger aviation in Africa returns to pre-cricis levels is uncertain, according to the AFRAA Secretary General Abderahmane Berthe. Everything depends on the speed of the vaccination, which leaves a lot to be desired.
Just recently, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) announced that it could take until the end of 2022 to vaccinate at least 60% of the continent's people. Berthe therefore does not expect air traffic to recover before that.
Despite the shortfall, a digital COVID-19 passport developed by the African Union (AU) will address the long queues at Africa's airports. Instead of lengthy checks or test and vaccination certificates, passengers can now use the My COVID Pass app. Some airlines have already integrated it into their travel apps so that passengers can have digital proof that they meet the entry requirements for their destinations.
Andrew Wasike contributed to this report.