Can low-cost, long-haul open the door to Africa’s potential?

The anticipated arrival of the first AirAsia X long-haul, low-cost flights at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport on the island of Mauritius in October this year is just one good example of the leisure potential that Africa holds for future air service connectivity. Although the island nation in the Indian Ocean is some 2,000 kilometres off the southeast coast of the African continent, it shows that destinations across Africa can secure new flights from major airline brands, in the process boosting inbound and outbound tourism flows and ultimately bringing economic benefits.

When AirAsia X launches its three times weekly link between Kuala Lumpur and Mauritius on October 4, 2016, it will be the sole carrier to provide non-stop flights on the route. However, this is more than just about supporting the leisure flows into the idyllic island destination but also a stepping stone for journeys into mainland Africa.

“Mauritius is the perfect stepping stone for those Malaysians who want to go beyond and explore the beauty of Africa – from beautiful Cape Town to the exotic lands of Namibia, Madagascar and Botswana,” said Arik De, head of commercial, AirAsia X.

The flight will also add feed via the comprehensive Asian network of the low-cost carrier and its partner brands across the region and will even permit one-stop flows into Pacific markets via Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The big question is… Is the arrival of AirAsia X the first step in a growth in low-cost, long-haul into Africa and will we see new flights into the Continent in the years to come? Yes, is certainly the answer and it is understood that European carrier Norwegian is already discussing flights between points in Europe and South Africa.

We are already seeing growing demand for leisure services into parts of Africa, particularly in the south of the country. British Airways will this winter launch a three times weekly link between London Gatwick and Cape Town from November 24, 2016. This winter-only flight will complement the airline’s existing services to the South African city from its main hub at London Heathrow.

The UK leisure carrier, Thomas Cook Airlines, will also introduce its own London Gatwick – Cape Town offering a mix of tour packages and seat-only deals on its three times weekly flights between December 15, 2016 and March 20, 2017.

Cape Town remains a popular leisure getaway for travellers thanks to its blend of nature, culture, wildlife and history and its dramatic coastline, the breath-taking views from Table Mountain and world-renowned vineyards and restaurants make it one of the most popular places in Africa to visit and explore.

It is a more mature destination, but demand also exists for newer markets to flourish as more efficient new generation airliners and the low cost of fuel together open up the potential for airlines to consider many routes that were previously seen as too much of a risk.

Such destinations include Victoria Falls International Airport in Zimbabwe, which following major investment work is now on the radar of airlines and tour operators as a realistic gateway to one of the wonders of the world.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ) initiated a $150 million project to modernise the facility this decade and with its modern terminal structure and extended runway is now working to secure direct long-haul flights into the town, close to the Zimbabwe – Zambia border.

The landing strip and associated taxiways, in addition to the extending the existing apron area will enable the airport to handle aircraft up to Boeing 747 size and accept direct flights from destinations across a range of long-haul markets, including Europe, opening the doors for the introduction of potential tour operator packages from key markets such as the UK.

Every year around 143,000 passengers fly in and out Zimbabwe from Europe with around 84,000 of these beginning or ending their journeys in the UK. Other European markets with notable demand to and from Zimbabwe include Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland. Approximately 39.9 percent of the traffic between Europe and Zimbabwe in 2013 flew from or to London Heathrow.

Air service development can at times be a slow process and with visitor numbers to the ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’, which translates into English as ‘The Smoke That Thunders’, showing a small decline, the investment at Victoria Falls International Airport was always going to be for long-term gain.

“The project work is part of our plan to get such [long-haul] flights onboard but it may not be until 2018 that we can sensibly expect to see the fruits of the investment,” a CAAZ official explained when Victoria Falls successfully hosted the Routes Africa air service development forum back in June 2014.

As part of its marketing to attract new airlines, Tawande Gusha, director of airports at the CAAZ presented a special case study on the construction of the new terminal building at Victoria Falls International Airport to airline delegates and travel specialists at the recent Routes Africa 2016 forum in Tenerife, Canary Islands.

Malawi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Central African Republic, Uganda and Ethiopia are the seven African nations that are now included in IATA’s fastest growing global passenger markets of the next 20 years. As Africa's population continues to grow air travel could become more accessible than ever before. The ten youngest populations in the world are all in Africa, with the median age ranging from 14.8 years to 17.0 years. Niger, Uganda, Chad, Angola, Mali, Somali, Gambia, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burkina Faso are all home to these emerging generations.

These youthful populations are considered a major advantage for the continent: an increasing working age population is a major opportunity for economic growth. With adequate education and jobs, $500 billion a year could be added to African economies for 30 years, it is predicted.

What is for sure is there is a tremendous opportunity for air service growth to, from and within Africa. There are endless reports on the long-awaited Yamassoukro Decision and whether it will actually deliver its promised benefits to the African aviation sector or whether outside factors will continue to blunt the impact of an agreement that has been discussed for many years but still awaits implementation.

The agreement stipulates a substantial liberalising of traffic rights within Africa and less regulation of capacity, frequency and fares) and commits its 44 signatory countries to deregulate air services, and promote regional air markets open to transnational competition.

Aviation already supports 6.9 million jobs and more than $80 billion in GDP across Africa, but research demonstrates that intra-African liberalisation between just 12 key markets could provide an extra 155,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in annual GDP.

The research suggests that a potential five million passengers a year are being denied the chance to travel between these markets because of unnecessary restrictions on establishing air routes. However, while these points are valid, they are not the whole story as even with restricted bilaterals generally still in place between African states, there are many available routes which are not being served, or served to the available limits.

The relevant questions are then: why is this so, and what can be done about it? Is it a matter of having the right planes of the right size serving the right routes? Is it also about finding that win-win-win between airports, airlines and Government stakeholders to bring new or revived air services, and making time-efficient connections where direct routes are not available?

Richard Maslen

Richard Maslen has travelled across the globe to report on developments in the aviation sector as airlines and airports have continued to evolve and…