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As Foreign Airlines Jostle for W’African Market
International carriers have dominated the air travel market in West Africa, due to lack of capacity of indigenous airlines and intrigues by individual countries in the sub-region. Consequently, African airlines continue to struggle to have a piece of the market, writes Chinedu Eze
With a population of about 429,312,101 and passenger traffic of over 21 million per annum, West Africa has been a juicy market for international carriers which connect the rest of the world from the state capitals of the 16 countries in the sub region.
Over the years these foreign carriers led by Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, British Airways, all European carriers with inroad being made by the Middle East carriers like Emirates, Qatar Airways and the EuroAsian carrier, Turkish Airlines, international operators, have succeeded in taking over the market in the sub-region.
THISDAY learnt that today, Ethiopian Airlines has advanced in penetrating the market and has remained the only African carrier effectively competing with these international airlines. But using the vestiges of influence from colonialism and aero politics, these European carriers still corner a huge slice of passenger traffic in the West Coast and this is enhanced by aviation policies enunciated by most countries in West Africa, which tend to protect the market against African airlines while keeping their airspace wide open to these international airlines that use diplomacy and lope-sided bilateral air service agreements (BASA) to sustain their dominance of the sub-region.
It is said like a joke that African leaders feel flattered when presidents of European nations ask for favours from them, like allowing their carriers to have foray into their countries. Reports indicate that in 2013 Arik Air requested to balance the (BASA) agreement, which gave UK 21 frequencies, 14 frequencies for British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways to Lagos and seven frequencies to Abuja from London for BA. Arik Air wanted to be designated for London-Abuja flights at Heathrow airport, but British airport authority insisted that Arik must buy slots, which was not part of the reciprocity clause as outlined in the BASA agreement. The Minister of Aviation then, Senator Stella Oduah insisted that Arik Air must be given a slot at London Heathrow to Abuja or government would stop British Airways from operating to Abuja. This matter dragged on until one day the then UK Prime Minister called the then President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan. Nigeria quickly acquiesced to UK request and the matter was rested.
Stakeholders said that because European countries wield enormous influence in West Africa, these mega carriers have no problems in drawing favourable BASA agreements from these West African nations and industry stakeholders heap the blame on African leadership. That’s one of the factors that inhibit the growth of major carriers in the sub-region.
According to studies, West Africa and perhaps Central Africa may be the least connected sub-regions in Africa because the areas do not have major airlines like Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways or South African Airways so West African countries, comprising Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote D’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo, have remained relatively isolated in terms of air connectivity, thereby hampering business activities within the sub-region.
This is the reason the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is committed to the realisation of “Single Africa Air Transport Market (SAATM). Ideally SAATM stipulates the full liberalisation of intra-African air transport services in terms of market access, traffic rights for scheduled and freight air services by eligible airlines thereby improving air services connectivity and air carrier efficiencies.”
IATA explained that SAATM is a flagship project of the African Union Agenda 2063, an initiative of the African Union to create a single unified air transport market in Africa to advance the liberalization of civil aviation in Africa and act as an impetus to the continent’s economic integration agenda. SAATM will ensure aviation plays a major role in connecting Africa, promoting its social, economic and political integration and boosting intra-Africa trade and tourism as a result.
Reports indicate that out of the 16 countries in the West Coast, only very few are connected by direct flights. To link some countries it could take 24 hours for a journey of less than two hours by flight because the passenger may first fly to one European city before coming back to Africa and his destination.
Barriers to Implementation of SAATM
THISDAY gathered that governments of many West African nations seem not to be enthused by SAATM because they are yet to allow for the liberalization of their airspace to African airlines, which they see as rivals and indulge in protectionism. An African scholar who had a conference in one French speaking West African nation narrated his experience that all the resource persons from Europe and Asia travelled to that country without visa or visa on arrival but it was only him who was an African and coming from another African nation that was requested to obtain visa before coming to the country. That caused three days delay and he nearly missed the conference.
During the Satellite-Based Augmentation System (SBAS) conference held in Abuja recently, Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) pointed out some inhibitions to SAATM. The Chairman and CEO of Air Peace and the Vice-President of AON, Allen Onyema said during the conference that for SAATM to work there must be fairness in its implementation.
“SAATM is very good idea that would help Africa, it would help connectivity, it would boost tourism. However, nations must be sincere in the implementation of the SAATM. I want to use this opportunity to tell everyone present that we must be sincere in our implementation of SAATM for all this to be enjoyed by everyone. If it is one sided, where Nigerian airlines are being deprived of landing permit or when given in the other part of Africa, they make it very impossible for them to operate, then the objective of SAATM is defeated.
“However, we have to support it but be sincere in its application. Flying over francophone countries have become something of a nightmare to Nigerian airlines, when they bring bills you start wondering how it happened. Sometimes there is a lot of conflict, then it goes to blackmail, and they do not accept reconciliation,” he said.
Many industry observers express suspicion that there is externally induced dichotomy and rivalry between English speaking countries and that of French speaking nations, which are still strongly attached to their ‘benefactor’, France; like a baby monkey holding tenaciously to its mother.
Travel expert and organiser of Akwaaba African Travel Market, Ambassador IkechiUko told THISDAY that in terms of passenger movement there are three African airlines that have carved out slice of the West African market and these include Ethiopian Airlines, ASKY and African World Airlines (AWA). According to him, these airlines are being run by seasoned African aviators, including AWA, which was established by Chinese investors but was managed by Sean Mendis who left the company sometime ago. IkechiUko is of the view that African airlines do better when they partner with fellow African airlines or when they operate on their own, using well seasoned experts who have garnered experience working for different airlines or have put many years in one successful airline.
“Every partnership in Africa with non-African carrier has struggled. The defunct Virgin Nigeria Airways was doing well until Richard Branson left and the top team of the airline was made of experienced African aviators led by an expatriate who left and a Nigerian took over who was eventually succeeded by an Ethiopian; until the airline was taken over and renamed. There was a Kenyan who was the Commercial Officer; Ethiopian was Director of Flight Operations. So the top echelon of the then airline was occupied by Africans who operated the airline until it was taken over.
“This shows that your airline will do well when you assemble Africans who have global experience to run it. ASKY is doing well and is being run by French (Togo) and Ethiopian management culture. That culture is very important because that is what provides the discipline and vision that sustain the airline. And that’s why those who occupy the key management positions are critical for the sustenance of the company. Those who will instill that culture of discipline,” he said.
He said that AWA also brought in African experience and has a successful team, which buoyed the airline to profitability, noting that the airline made its profits from its Kumasi and Lagos routes.
The travel expert acknowledged that European airlines still have dominance of the West African market and these include Air France, KLM, and BA; even though Turkish Airlines is doing well but it is serving the Asian destinations more effectively.
“African carriers are supposed to service the West African market but we don’t have the airlines. BA, KLM, Lufthansa and Air France still dominate the market. Ethiopian Airlines has beaten other African carriers to entrench dominance in the sub-region and that explained the antagonism to the airline,” he said.
An industry stakeholder told THISDAY, “The challenge we have in Africa is that we tend to be fierce in fighting against another African carrier but do not extend that fight against international airlines from Europe and Middle East. Before Emirates left Nigeria it was carrying the highest number of passengers and even currently, AWA carries passengers from Nigeria to Emirates in Accra, Ghana. But while Emirates has the individual passengers, Ethiopian Airlines has the corporate travel in Nigeria.’
Ghana Airport Strategy
Ghana’s plan to make its Kotoka International Airport, Accra a hub in West Africa has made it to liberalise regulations and conditions for international airline operations and has given incentives to international carriers wishing to operate from the destinations.
Reports indicate that Ghana is rapidly expanding with a 40 per cent increase in passenger numbers from 415,000 domestic travelers in 2018 to 690,000 in 2019 alone. This is attributed to increase in government investment in airport infrastructure (such as opening the new WA airport), an increase in flight frequency by airlines, and a push for global tourism by Ghanaian government. But in comparison this is still far below Nigeria which 2022 international passenger traffic was almost four million (3, 503, 692), over 12 million domestic passenger traffic and a total of over 16 million passenger traffic in the same period.
“Ghana aviation hub strategy is granting fifth freedom to airlines and this means that any airline that comes will be embraced. This may go against SAATM, which is primarily centred on African carriers in order to empower them and also to connect various parts of Africa in order to enhance trade,” explained an industry stakeholder to THISDAY.
An airline founder and renowned stakeholder in Nigeria’s aviation industry told THISDAY that one of the major problems Nigeria and even West Africa have is that prominent citizens who can afford first class and business class tickets would rather patronise international carriers that are well known; instead of patronising their local carriers. This, he described as brand intoxication. He said that everyone knows that airlines break even with the first class and business class cabins, but those who can afford the upper class would travel with Lufthansa, KLM, Air France and BA instead of travelling with Nigerian airline.
“One day I showed a top banker the business class of my plane and he said that it is very good; that he has instructed his managers to always travel with my planes because they are very good but he travels with British Airways. It is unfortunate but I must tell you that the people who hate Nigeria are Nigerians. When we were flying to London Nigerians would prefer foreign airlines despite the fact that we have newer equipment. We should show more patriotism and commitment because that is what other citizens of other countries are doing that enabled them to build strong airlines, strong businesses and strong institutions,” he said.
There are myriads of factors why West Africa has not been able to build strong airlines that could play dominant role in the sub-region in terms of having a large chunk of the market. Governments and airlines must review their policies and strategies. Airlines must strive for reliability in order to encourage code-share with international carriers.