The COVID-19 pandemic has been with us for almost two years, and has disrupted our way of living and economies around the world.
The aviation sector, which employs millions of people and acts as the heart of international business and leisure, has been adversely affected. The airline industry as a whole is struggling to keep above water, with airlines, airports and ground-handling firms in despair as revenue lines dry up. African airlines have not been spared, and have also been hard hit per the scenarios below:
- Ethiopian Airlines lost US$550million in revenues because of international flight restrictions in the first 6 months of COVID-19 pandemic
- RwandAir slashed 65% of staff salaries to cut down on losses
- Air Namibia suspended flights and entered liquidation in early 2021
- Late in 2020, South African Airways (SAA) auctioned inflight service items like toothpicks, chopsticks, ear-plugs, raincoats etc. to stay afloat
- Royal Air Maroc laid-off 140 staff including pilots and cabin crew in 2020
- Creditors of Air Seychelles wanted to shut down the airline early this year
- Air Mauritius was placed in voluntary administration at the start of the pandemic
- Kenya Airways lost an estimated US$330million in revenues in 2020 as passenger numbers dropped by 65.7%
- Egypt Air required a US$130million loan from the Egyptian government to sustain its operations
The above are but a sample of the turbulence African airlines have suffered for nearly two years. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) in its latest economic forecast indicates airlines this year are expected to lose US$51.8billion, and will lose a total of US$200billion between 2020 & 2022. Obviously, aside God’s intervention, the situation looks bleak; but what should African airlines do to minimise the pandemic’s negative effects?
Practical steps going forward
- African airlines need to have a fair mix of passenger and cargo/freight fleets. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, cargo demand has risen dramatically because of the need for vaccine deliveries, repatriation flights and increased e-commerce uptake. Thus, airlines like Qatar, Ethiopian, Emirates and Turkish which have a good air cargo capacity are the ones to sail above the stormy waters. RwandAir & Kenya Airways have also made progress on the cargo front, but not as much as Ethiopian!
- African airlines must buy aircraft that can be easily converted to cargo at very short notice. Airbus claims that the A350 series can be converted to cargo in 2 days. This should be a factor in considering long-haul aircraft purchases, for example.
- African airports must be designed to find alternate revenue lines aside from traditional ones; the Vilnius/Lithuania airport drive-in cinema is an interesting concept
- African airlines need to look at the way they couch aircraft purchase agreements going forward, in the light of acts of nature like pandemics, to reduce the financial impact on their operations
- Diversify revenue streams but add new business lines. For e.g., Ethiopian Airlines and Boeing recently signed a strategic memorandum of understanding (MoU) to position Ethiopia as Africa’s Aviation Hub in the areas of industrial development, aviation training, educational partnership and leadership development
- Use the African Continental Free Trade Area’s (AfCFTA) advent to launch new African routes and enhance intra-African trade. Air Tanzania for e.g. will launch direct flights to Nairobi/Kenya, Bujumbura/Burundi & Lubumbashi/DR Congo in November 2021. Again, Ethiopian Airlines has signed an interline agreement with Johannesburg-based Airlink to allow passengers seamless travel on a single ticket on any of the 2 carriers’ networks. This however calls for harmonised travel arrangements, COVID-19 test procedures and fees, vaccine passports etc.
- Encourage domestic tourism in African countries via strategic collaborations with the hospitality sector to sustain aviation and hospitality sector jobs. So-called ‘Nowhere’ flights that fly past tourist sites (without landing) and back is a step in the right direction to keep aircraft flying. All Nippon Airways (ANA) are using the Airbus A380 to run ‘Nowhere’ flights within Japan
- Review routes & fleet size to be profitable during the pandemic. For e.g., SAA after having gone into bankruptcy in 2020 has recently started operations within South Africa, Ghana, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Zambia & Mozambique with a reduced fleet of only 8 aircraft from a previous 44 – shedding their fuel-guzzling Boeing 747 and some of their Airbus A340 aircraft!
- Increased use of self-checks at kiosks/counters with emphasis on bio-security and safety like t Ethiopian Airlines has done at their Bole Airport hub. This will no doubt minimise physical contact and spread of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on air transport has a far-reaching impact on economies, individuals and businesses. With the drive toward vaccination, it is expected that most countries will gradually ease travel restrictions to allow routes be re-opened to their pre-COVID-19 levels. However, until then, airlines must survive – and the back-up plan is what has been suggested above.
Alan Watts, the British philosopher once said: “The joy of travel is not so much in getting where one wants to go as in the unsought surprises which occur on the journey”. How very true this is; in the midst of COVID-19 travel passports, lockdowns, compulsory isolations, mandatory PCR tests etc., travel has definitely changed and is not so much fun as before.
- Simple Flying
>>>The writer is an avid aircraft enthusiast and has over 22 years of banking experience. You can reach him on [email protected]