In every market forecast for aircraft deliveries, the continent listed as having the smallest predicted sales is Africa. That seems about to change, and manufacturers of crossover narrowbody jets, in particular, are aiming to ensure that airlines on the growth trajectory do so with aircraft right-sized for each segment. 

“Despite the region’s large land mass and population share, Africa represents less than 10% of the world’s [available seat miles]. These numbers are forecast to grow significantly in the next few years, enabling Africa to be one of the fastest-growing areas,” observes Stewart Cordner, senior vice president for commercial at Superjet International. “In addition, the huge untapped market—only 12% of people currently travel by air—will bring additional opportunities for 100-seat jet aircraft,” he says.

The traditional larger narrowbody aircraft are well-represented across Africa’s fleet, but regional jets have never sold in big numbers across the continent. Raul Villaron, vice president of sales for the Middle East and Africa at Embraer Commercial Aviation, points out, though, that his company does have more than 45 operators in Africa, flying more than 150 aircraft (only a few of which are in the crossover category) in 23 African countries. 

“Airlink, with whom we recently partnered to open a new training center in Johannesburg, is steadily growing its ERJ and E-Jet fleet,” Villaron says. “Fastjet, meanwhile, with its regional expansion in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania is another example of an African airline that is choosing crossover jets to support its development. They have right-sized their previous [Airbus] A319 fleet by moving over to ERJ and E-Jet aircraft, allowing them to be profitable again and penetrate new markets,” Villaron adds. 

“Having the right size aircraft is essential for African airlines to be able to return to profit. This is exactly what crossover jets can offer. Indeed, 85% of flights within Africa depart with fewer than 120 passengers on board,” Villaron says, while noting that the majority of the aircraft serving those markets are large narrowbodies. 

“A major impact of deploying large narrowbodies into thin routes is the resulting low number of frequencies. More than 70% of intra-African routes are served with fewer than one flight per day. It is absolutely clear that right-sizing is the key to efficient and profitable operations,” the Embraer vice president declares. 

Mitsubishi’s vice president of sales and marketing, Jorge Abando, says African carriers “continue to optimize their networks by matching capacity to demand on regional routes, developing new regional routes and serving traditional hub-and-spoke networks to build connectivity. This is what the new clean-sheet design MRJ is all about.” 

Bombardier Commercial Aircraft forecasts a requirement in Africa for 250 aircraft in the crossover narrowbody category between 2017-36. But the OEMs want to beat that figure, and Bombardier is developing its infrastructure across the continent to do just that. 

“Africa is the world’s third-fastest-growing region after Southeast Asia and greater China with [predicted] 4.1% GDP growth from 2017-36,” observes Imed Ben Abdallah, head of marketing for the Middle East and Africa at Bombardier. “Customer support is key to  airlines introducing new fleets. Using an entry-into-service team for a significant period, Bombardier provides that full support. Flight simulators are expected to grow along with the expansion of the customer base. In fact, the first C Series [device] is [already] scheduled for Egypt.” 

Embraer’s approach to infrastructure involves a similar investment in training. “One great example is the opening of the new Embraer training center in Johannesburg that will address one well-known shortage of our industry in Africa: the training of local skilled workforce,” Villaron confirms. “Also, Embraer Authorized Service Centers allow airlines to access the best MRO services. Kenya Airways and Jet Services in South Africa are offering to Embraer operators all the MRO services and also developing the local know-how.” 

Superjet International’s Cordner also notes that the continent’s infrastructure is finally getting the required attention. “In Africa, the majority of airports are undergoing expansion in a bid to cater to rapidly growing passenger volumes. Since 2014, Africa initiated 40 new airport projects in a bid to expand its airport infrastructure,” he remarks. 

Cordner does, however, have concerns about the regulatory structure. “Lack of liberalization or deregulation are limiting the regional market more than a lack of infrastructure,” he explains. “Air transport is concentrated on main hubs and non-African carriers dominate intercontinental traffic. Passengers often find it easier to fly first to Europe and then to another African country. In recent years, some bilateral agreements among neighboring countries have boosted regional connections also on secondary markets.” 

Following concern for regulations is the matter of funding. “This has been one of the main issues for the development of a strong regional market within Africa. But the world is changing, and today it is an ideal destination for investments,” Cordner believes. “For example during the last St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Irkut Corp. and Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Co. signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with Saudi Arabia State Investment Agency to promote the Sukhoi SSJ100 in the Middle East, as well as the North and Central Africa regions.” 

Mitsubishi’s Abando also believes that while, historically, financing criteria were more severe, today it is more balanced. “Country risk, airline risk and asset risk all affect funding, and [these types] are no different from narrowbody aircraft with respect to financing criteria,” he declares. “Typically, financing African airlines involves more risk, lessening the amount of opportunities and raising the cost of that financing. But like the rest of the world, Africa has a host of financing instruments, from export credit agencies, to government financing, institutional financing and cash,” Abando concludes.

Villaron points out that in contrast to Boeing and Airbus, export credit financing has never been closed for E-Jet customers. “Embraer has developed an extended approach to export credit, facilitating the development of cooperation agreements between BNDES (the Brazilian Development Bank) and other multilateral financial institutions (i.e., AfrEximBank and African Development Bank) willing to finance new aircraft deliveries in Africa. Financing for the E-Jets E2 family is in fact a competitive advantage for Embraer. We have strong support from both international aviation financiers and local African banks.” 

According to Abdallah, commercial aviation banks and lessors are well aware of the C Series’ technical characteristics, operational performance and market applications—and several have already considered specific C Series loan financing opportunities. “Lessors have already placed orders, and C Series sale–leaseback transactions are expected as the C Series gains growing interest worldwide,” he reports. That position can only be strengthened by the completion of the deal for Airbus to take a majority share in the program.