Africa Signals Post-Pandemic Shift Away From Widebodies

Kenya Airways 737-800
Credit: Rob Finlayson

While African airlines appear to be rapidly growing their regional jet and turboprop operations, with narrowbody flown hours on the increase, widebody utilization remains below pre-pandemic, potentially indicating increased intra-African flying and capacity right-sizing. 

An interesting picture is emerging in Africa. The good news is that African airlines’ August 2023 traffic reached 98.4% of August 2019 levels, indicating substantial market recovery, according to the latest data from the African Airlines Association (AFRAA). 

Likewise, Aviation Week Network’s Tracked Aircraft Utilization tool shows that African flown hours are now 6% up on August 2019. However, the mix of aircraft performing that flying has changed substantially. 


An analysis of flown hours by aircraft category shows that regional jet utilization has shot up 208%, based on a data comparison between August 2023 and August 2019. In absolute numbers, regional jet flown hours have increased from just under 4,000 to over 12,000 hr. Meanwhile, turboprop utilization has more than doubled, from 5,000 to 10,000 hr. 

Turboprops and regional jets make up just 14% of Africa’s overall flown hours, but it is notable that they are seeing such intense growth. This coincides with a push toward intra-African air transport liberalization, under the single African air transport market (SAATM) initiative. 

Despite this growth in smaller aircraft operations, most African flying—around 60% of total flown hours—is still performed using narrowbodies. These aircraft saw a 3% increase in utilization, hitting nearly 92,000 hr. in August 2023. However, the one category that has seen a decrease in August flown utilization was widebodies, which dropped 13% to 49,000 hr. between August 2019 and August 2023. China is a major trade partner with Africa, so some of this stagnation could be explained by slower re-opening of Asian markets.

OAG weekly seat capacity data for w/c Sept. 18 shows that Boeing 737s account for 33% of African intra-regional capacity, with Airbus A320 family aircraft coming a distant second at 11%. Embraer E-Jets account for just under 10% of weekly seat capacity, putting the Brazilian manufacturer in close contention with Airbus. Smaller regional aircraft, like the ERJ family and ATRs, each account for around 3% of weekly seat capacity.

Top 10 aircraft being used on intra-regional African routes by weekly share (OAG data)
Top 10 aircraft being used on intra-regional African routes by weekly share. Source: OAG data

Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer have all released 20-year market outlooks for Africa this summer. The methodologies vary, but it is interesting to roughly compare how the different airframers see the market shaping up. All three airframers predict that African GDP will grow around 3.3-3.4% over the next 20 years. 

Boeing is forecasting that African RPKs will rise by 7.4% per annum over the period to 2042, with fast-growing intra-regional and domestic markets creating demand for 1,025 new aircraft (20 regional jets, 730 narrowbodies, 250 widebodies, 25 freighters). This is based on African traffic more than quadrupling over the next 20 years, causing the continent’s fleet to double to 1,555 aircraft. Single aisles will make up more than 70% of new aircraft deliveries.

“We forecast an increase in the average aircraft size and seats per aircraft for the African fleet, as single aisles, like the Boeing 737 MAX, will be the most in demand for the continent,” Boeing MD of Commercial Marketing for Middle East and Africa Randy Heisey said Sept. 13.

Meanwhile, Airbus’ is forecasting 4.1% annual passenger growth and 3.1% annual cargo growth for Africa, resulting in demand for 1,180 aircraft (885 single aisles, 295 widebodies), exceeding Boeing’s forecasts in both categories.

Finally, Embraer predicts 3.7% African RPK growth and demand for 870 new aircraft by 2042 (210 turboprops, 320 narrowbodies below 150 seats, 340 narrowbodies 150- to 210-seats). Embraer’s narrowbody figures total 660. While not directly comparable, Embraer’s forecast appears to be lower than Airbus and Boeing’s.

Embraer has been a long-term proponent of African right-sizing, and the AWIN utilization data supports the idea that the market may be shifting in this direction. “There is a new opportunity to address the persistent problems of the region: low load factors due to overcapacity, poor connectivity stemming from few frequencies (almost 70% of domestic and intra-regional markets have less than one daily flight), the absence of nonstop flights in many markets, and operating inefficiencies from regulatory restrictions. The up-to-150-seat jet segment can address most of these issues,” Embraer said in June.

Again, this is reflected in the latest AFRAA data, which shows that intra-African connectivity—particularly from airports like Johannesburg, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Lusaka, Cairo, Casablanca, Abidjan and Lomé—has reached or exceeded pre-pandemic levels since December 2022.

Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) CEO Aaron Munetsi observed that there is no one-size-fits all solution for Africa because the continent includes so many different markets and geographies. “Africa is a vast continent of 55 countries and five regional economic communities, each with its own peculiarities. The aviation industry in each region has developed to different degrees.” 

Munetsi identified demand for narrowbodies in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, West and Central Africa, and North Africa. However, the reasons vary for each region.

He said SADC has the “most well-developed” aviation infrastructure, supporting narrowbody operations. In West and Central Africa, the infrastructure needs developing, but “the population is economically active, and they travel a lot.” Finally, North Africa needs narrowbodies because of the proximity between countries and with Southern Europe.

“In East Africa, where the infrastructure is mostly in need of improvement and the general population is not economically active, it is my opinion that regional jets are the best way to create a viable aviation industry,” Munetsi said.

According to OAG data, there are currently 415 international intra-regional routes (averaging 153 seats and 1,727 km [1,073 mi.] in distance) and 568 domestic routes (averaging 88 seats and 470 km). The longest intra-African route is Algiers to Johannesburg, at 7,456 km.

Victoria Moores

Victoria Moores joined Air Transport World as our London-based European Editor/Bureau Chief on 18 June 2012. Victoria has nearly 20 years’ aviation industry experience, spanning airline ground operations, analytical, journalism and communications roles.