Becoming a global aviation leader: Is SA on track?


Cape Town - Government commitment, industry collaboration and the best, new aircraft - this is what it takes to revive an ailing national aviation industry, according to aviation expert Professor Wolfgang Thome, chief corresponded for Africa eTurboNews (eTN) in Uganda. 

Speaking at World Travel Market Africa, currently underway in Cape Town's International Convention Centre, Thome used four East African Airlines to illustrate how the aviation industry in this African region has expanded with the help of the aforementioned factors. 

Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Air Tanzania and RwandAir, Thome says, have all shown significant growth in the past year, despite many other airlines in East African buckling under the pressures of political and economic instability. 

SEE: New SA flight routes travellers can take advantage of in 2017

Government commitment 

Although the partial privatisation of airlines is the backbone of many internationally acclaimed airlines' success, government prioritisation and financial support play an integral role in keeping airlines in the sky. 

But it's not only financial support and commitment from government that's needed for African aviation industry to thrive. 

According to Thome, "Bad politicians mean a bad economy", and the East African airlines' turnaround serves as a prime example. With Air Tanzania, one of the fastest expanding of the region's carriers, a new management programme for the airline played an integral role in reviving Air Tanzania. 

"President John Magufuli appointed a new Chairman of the Board of Directors for the national airline and also put a new CEO in place," Thome wrote when the shift took place in September last year. 

Thereafter, Tanzania’s Minister of Transport and Communications, Makame Mbarawa, appointed a further five board members and gave the new team just three months to clean house and overhaul the entire management of the airline, firing incompetent and corrupt officials and giving the new management an ultimatum of success. 

Back home, SA's flag carrier South African Airways has not been the picture of a pristine parastatal operation, with former Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas investigated by the Hawks elite police unit as part of a probe into allegations of corruption at state-owned SAA. 

Last month, documents submitted to Parliament’s standing committee on Finance estimated the losses of the already cash-strapped SAA to be around R4.5-billion.

Thome warns, however, that governmental commitment shouldn't mean paying off a losing business' debt, but rather a national government wholly invested in running a thriving aviation industry.  

Buying the best 

One way in which such a commitment is seen is the purchasing of industry-leading aircraft by many of the East African carriers. 

While the air travel routes to the major hubs in Africa are still dominated by the big European and Gulf carrier airlines, Thome says that the upswing of local airlines and airports, if continually backed by their respective governments, are able to become enormous global influencers for air travel connectivity. 

RwandAir, for example, has shown incredible growth in fleet and route expansion with committed government investment. The airline has acquired industry-leading aircraft - a total of 12 brand new aircraft in 10 years - and is eyeing new routes to London Gatwick and even New York City in the near future. They already have scheduled services to India, Lagos and Dubai, offering an African exclusive business class travel experience from a local African carrier. 

Similarly, Air Tanzania is undergoing a much more rapid transformation having bought multiple new aircraft with backing from the Tanzanian government. The airline became the first in Africa to acquire a brand new Bombardier Q400NexGen, the most economical single-aisle aircraft currently on the market, and has also commissioned a brand new Boeing 787 due for arrival next year. 

ALSO SEE: Touchdown! Ethiopian Airlines launches new route to Vic Falls, connecting US to Zim

Back home, South Africa's flag carrier SAA clearly recognises the value of investing in top-range aircraft, with the first of five new Airbus 330-300's arriving in SAA late last year. The new "aircraft will enable the airline to expand its current route network and improve its efficiencies", SAA said at the time. 

SEE: #AfriTravel: SAA expands codeshare route with Ethiopian Airlines

Airport expansions 

Another point where SA is on target with the other upcoming air travel connectors on the continent is with the expansion of airport facilities and infrastructure. 

SEE: OR Tambo, Cape Town International Airport expansions: What you need to know

Other airports, especially in East Africa, are also seeing the value of becoming an international hub, however. In Rwanda, for example, along with the rapid expansion of the national airline, Kigali International Airport is undergoing upgrades to increase capacity and expand operations, while a brand new will be opening in Bugesera late 2017 or early 2018. 

Across the border, Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania is opening a new international arrival and departures terminals towards the end of 2017. Further upgrades at all airports across the country are also underway, including the smaller airports and hubs which serve a massive private market in accessing safari destinations easily. 

And in Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport isn't holding back either. A new terminal aimed to push capacity of the airport to 10 million passengers per year is underway, while the airport is also in the process of builing a second runway, which will ensure a much smoother air travel experience at East Africa's most prominent airport. 

In comparison, the R42 million boost planned for OR Tambo International Airport in Joburg will have to pull out all the stops to compete.

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