12 developments that will shift African air travel to new heights

23 Mar 2018, Posted by Fungai Tichawangana in Tips & Ideas

One of the big challenges, when you use air travel across the African continent, is how expensive flights to places that are really close to you can be. This is because firstly there are often no direct flights linking many major African centres of commerce and worse still linking African resort areas to major city centres. This means one often has to connect via a circuitous route to get to a destination. I was reading an article on City Lab recently which spoke about this problem.

They cited the difficulty of flying between two of Africa’s most prominent cities, Kinshasa in the DRC and Lagos in Nigeria. The two cities are about 1,800km apart. This distance could be covered in two hours if there was a direct flight between the two cities. But there isn’t. As a result, you will need to connect through at least one other airport and the ticket will cost you at least US$1,200. Total travel time? Expect this journey to take you about 12 hours.

Another reason is that the taxes are so high and a third reason is that there aren’t too many flights on some routes either because they are not profitable or the countries involved haven’t licensed other airlines to fly those routes.

Another challenge is infrastructure. A lot of African airports are dated and not user-friendly. That applies both to passengers as it does for flight crews.

However, all these things are starting to change and 2018-2019 alone will see a significant shift in many areas of air travel in Africa.


1. Single air transport market

In January, the African Union launched the Single African Air Transport Market initiative. To show you how long it takes these sorts of things to come together, this initiative is largely based on the agreements of the 1999 Yamoussoukro Decision signed in the Côte d’Ivoire capital for which it was named. And even after the signing, it will need to be ratified by the parliaments.

The initiative, once in effect will liberalise air spaces, making it possible for new players to ply currently restricted routes. This will increase competition, increase options and bring prices down. At least that’s the idea.

According to The International Air Transport Association (IATA), if just 12 key African countries opened their markets and increased connectivity an extra 155,000 jobs and US$1.3 billion in annual GDP would be created in those countries.”

However, there are some reservations from those who believe this would make it difficult for national ans local carriers to survive. 


2. New Airport in Senegal

It was originally scheduled for completion in 2011, but the Blaise Diagne International Airport (AIBD) [PICTURED ABOVE] only opened for business 6 years later in December last year. It replaces Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport as Senegal’s main airport. Léopold Sédar Senghor International had become too small to handle the growing traffic coming through Senegal.


AIBD cost over half a billion US dollars to construct and is said to have the capacity to handle three million passengers a year and this will be increased to 10 million per year in a new phase of development, making it one of the highest-capacity airports in Africa. Unlike its predecessor, the new airport can accommodate larger planes like the Airbus A380. The big idea is to make AIBD an air traffic hub for West Africa and a “preferred stopover point for air traffic in Africa, Europe and the Americas.”

The airport is also strategically positioned close to a number of beach resorts that are destinations for many European holidaymakers.


3. New Airport in Rwanda

Rwanda continues to grow in many ways. One of the big plans that have been put in place by the Kagame regime is to make Kigali a major hub for air travel on the continent. A key part of this plan is the new Bugeseara International Airport, a US$818 million project located 25km southeast of Kigali.

The first phase of the airport is expected to be completed in December this year. The airport will feature a 4,2km runway and have the capacity to serve 1.8 million passengers per annum in its first phase.

When fully complete, the airport will include a runway, cargo terminal and passenger terminal with capacity for 4.5 million passengers per year. Construction began in 2016 and the full project is expected to be completed in 2019.


4. Expanded airport in Ethiopia

Bole International Airport in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, was designed to handle 5 million passengers per year but currently serves 9 million. Three years ago, work began on a project to increase the capacity of the airport to 22 million. It is expected that phase of expansion will be completed by the end of the year. This would make Bole the biggest airport in Africa in terms of passenger numbers, ahead of current leader, O.R. Tambo International Airport, which currently processes 21million passengers per annum.

But the Ethiopians have bigger ambitions. It is envisaged that at the current rate of growth, Bole’s growth won’t keep up with demand, so they are planning to build a whole new airport. This one will have a capacity of, wait for it, 120 million passengers per year. Ethiopia currently has 20 airports. The government has laid out a plan to increase the number to 30 in the next five years. 25 of these will be international.


5. Start of work new runways at Jomo Kenyatta & Cape Town Airports

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is East Africa’s busiest air travel hub. It has scheduled flights to over 50 countries and handles over 7 million passengers per year. One of the limitations that the airport faces is that it has one runway. For years the Kenyan government has spoken about constructing a second runway and finally, last year, there was some movement after the African Development Bank approved a US$160m loan for the project, but the Kenyan government still needs to raise the rest of the approximately US$350m total that is needed for the construction and hasn’t stated how it will do this. There have also been questions raised about why a runway should cost so much.

The new runway will be 4.8km long and 75m wide (The current measures 4.1km and 45m respectively). When complete it will close to double the number of aircraft that the airport can handle from 25 to 45 per hour. It will also allow for the airport to continue operating should any incident make the current runway unusable. It will also make it possible for JKIA to handle new planes like the giant Airbus A380 and the Boeing B747-800. Another benefit is that the new runway will be equipped with technology to make it possible for planes to take off and land during less than-optimum-weather, preventing costly diversions.

JKIA is targeting a capacity of 25 million passengers per year by 2025.

Meanwhile Cape Town International Airport has just received clearance for a new US$320 million runway project. The project will realign the primary runway and construct new taxiways. When the project is complete the runway will The realigned primary runway will be 3‚5km long and will have better access for wide-bodied aircraft with a wingspan of 65m or more‚ such as the Airbus A-380, the world’s largest passenger plane. This project is only expected to start in 2019.


6. Ethiopia Airlines pushes to dominate African skies

Many national airlines in Africa teeter on the verge of financial collapse and are propped up by their respective governments. Even airlines that win continental awards like South African Airways (World Travel Awards Africa’s Leading Airline 1994 to 2015) and Kenya Airways (Africa’s Leading Airline 2016 and 2017) are not profitable. Ethiopian Airlines not only has more passenger planes than any other airline on the continent (92) it is the only profitable national carrier. Last year it made a profit of US$262 million of a revenue of US$2.3 billion. It flies to over 100 destinations on five continents.

Ethiopian is aggressively pushing growth. At the beginning of 2017, it received a US$159 million loan from the African Development Bank to finance its expansion plans. The airline is pushing for a fleet of 140 planes within the next decade.

Last year it added at least seven new destinations and just this month started flying five times a month to Buenos Aries in Argentina. When Arik Air, Nigeria’s biggest airline, went bankrupt and was taken over by the government last year, Ethiopian Airlines put in a yet unsuccessful bid to take it over. It is unlikely that the bid will succeed as the Nigerian government is planning to launch its own national carrier and possibly use the Arik fleet as the foundation for this.


7. Kenya Airways also has major growth plans

Kenya Airways is under pressure to become profitable. On its plans for achieving this are a number of moves towards expansion. This includes the introduction of a new ‘economy plus’ class by the end of the year. This will be targeted at business and wealthy leisure travellers. According to AfricaNews.com, this includes the growing numbers of American tourists and executives from numerous Nairobi-based American companies. Along with the new direct flights to New York mentioned above, the airline plans to introduce direct flights to Mauritius and a second daily flight to Amsterdam during the busy holiday season.

Kenya Airways’ low-cost subsidiary, Jambo Jet, launched four years ago, is also pushing hard. It has put in an order for two new and two used Bombardier Q400 planes. This year it launches flights to Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and Uganda and has plans to venture into Zambia, Somalia, Malawi and Eastern DRC.


8. Direct flights from Nairobi to New York

It’s the direct flight from Heaven for Kenyan travellers going to the USA and for African adventure seekers heading from the Americas to Nairobi. It also adds an extra connection point to the USA for African travellers. In January this year, it was announced that Kenya Airways would start operating a daily non-stop flight between Nairobi and New York. The inaugural flight scheduled for October 28, 2018 and already tickets are on sale at $869 return for economy class. This price will change with demand and time.

The flight, KQ002, will depart Nairobi (JKIA) every evening at 2325hrs and arrive in New York (JFK) at 0625hrs the following day. The return flight, KQ003, will leave New York at 1225hrs and arrive in Nairobi at 1055hrs the next day. The total flight time will be 15 hours, cutting 7 hours off the current shortest possible flying time between the two cities. Kenya Airways says the flights were timed to enable connections to and from 40 different African destinations.

This move comes after a September 2017 approval by the by the US Department of Transportation for Kenya Airways to operate flights in their country. JKIA was earlier in 2017 granted Category One status by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after the airport upgraded its security features and procedures.

Kenya Airways has a fleet of 34 planes and annually flies over three million passengers to 53 destinations around the world. The new trans-Atlantic route will be serviced by a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.


9. Rwandair is offering more than before

Rwandair, another recently aggressive player on the continent has also announced plans to launch direct flights to New York this year, but it is expected this may only materialise in 2019. Last year it launched new routes to London, Brussels, Harare and Mumbai. Its new Harare-Cape Town direct flights were received with excitement from Zimbabwean travellers who have had until now to stop over in Johannesburg to get to Cape Town.

Rwandair acquired two new Airbus A330 planes in 2016 and is leasing two more to increase its capacity. It currently has a total of 11 aircraft.


10. New international flights servicing East Africa’s busiest hub

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) is East Africa’s busiest airport. It recently expanded its terminal capacity to 7,5 million passengers a year and this has started to pay dividends. JKIA will see the return of Italian carrier, Alitalia, this month with four scheduled flights a week starting March 28th. The very next day, Air France will land its first flight in 18 years from Charles De Gaulle in Paris to Nairobi.

Air India has also announced it will return to Kenya this year and will fly daily between New Delhi and Nairobi. Qatar Airways is launching 12 new international routes this year and one of those will be into the famous Kenyan resort town, Mombasa.


11. Proposed new national carriers for Senegal & Nigeria

Senegal has said it will launch its new national airline, Air Senegal SA, by April 2018. The airline will initially serve primarily routes to West African destinations. The carrier last year signed a memorandum of understanding with Airbus for the purchase of two A330neo planes.

Air Senegal SA will be the third Senegalese national carrier in history to be launched after the bankruptcies of Air Senegal International (2001-2009) and Senegal Airlines (2011-2016)

Meanwhile, Nigeria is also planning to launch its own national airline. Last year the government took over the running of the bankrupt private airline, Arik Air and it is thought they will use this as the starting point for the planned national carrier.


12. Air Botswana to Privatise

While Nigeria and Senegal are talking about starting national carriers, Botswana wants to privatise its airline, Air Botswana, in a bid to make it more viable. Just this month, the Minister of Transport and Communications told the Tswana parliament that the plan was to purchase ATR72-600 planes to increase the value of the airline ahead of privatisation.

The loss-making airline is critical for Botswana’s lucrative tourism industry and also serves a growing business customer base.

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