Which are the Big Kahunas of Africa's airports? Here's why they are winners, and their plans to remain tops

Who's set to come out on top? There are surprises, with expected winners nowhere at the high table.

IT is no surprise that economic analysts obsess about each country’s level of infrastructure and how it affects its development. Infrastructure alone accounts for a big number of growth indicators, allowing for faster communication, improved efficiency and, most importantly, reliability. 

On the African continent these issues are of paramount value since scarcity of effective infrastructure is still high, and the countries that do well at it develop a highly competitive edge. Any country with reliable logistics arrangement, and a big enough market, is a precious destination for foreign direct investment and international trade.

The study of international airports reflects this relation in several ways. Larger economies tend to have larger airports. This may seem obvious, but a more rational assumption should state that the size of the airport ought to be related to the country’s population. 

This is not always the case. Nigeria, the continent’s undisputed leader in terms of population size is not home to its biggest airport. The Democratic Republic of Congo, with an estimated population of 70 million, the fourth largest on the continent, does not feature in the top 10 main landing destinations in Africa – and neither do Sudan or Tanzania, who also feature in the top ten most populated countries.

The struggle for dominance of the African skies is a game played by the continents’ most ambitious countries and their governments. While some focus on passenger numbers, due to predominantly tourist or diaspora-related travel, others place emphasis on cargo and trade. 

Regardless of the aim, however, the top African airports are growing giants. Most aim to expand at a fast rate in order to dominate their regions and remain key players on the continent. Here are Africa’s top 10 international airports.

10) Houari Boumediene International Airport, Algiers, Algeria

Algeria’s biggest airport has grown steadily over the years. Only a few years back its infrastructure could accommodate about 4 million passengers, today it is 6 million and plans for a projected expansion, to accommodate a further 10 million, have already started. Algeria’s population, of close to 40 million people, is the 8th largest on the continent, but its GDP is third – after Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt – explaining the rapid expansion plans.

9) Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, Kenya

Kenya has long assumed a leading position in East Africa. Its booming trade and a reputation for a five-star tourist destination have placed it on the list of top international destinations, regardless of purpose. Jomo Kenyatta International airport, however, is still on the bottom of the list of top ten biggest airports on the continent, which reflects Kenya’s GDP, but less so its rapidly growing population of over 44 million. Nonetheless, Kenya’s main airport remains one of the continents’ biggest for cargo. With the capacity of over 300,000 tones Jomo Kenyatta is a major destination for traders, especially in the global flower business, which requires rapid transportation, and in which Kenya is a top-five contributor.

8) Bole International Airport, Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia

Despite an in-built capacity of only 5 million passengers per year, Bole International Airport currently handles 6.5 million passengers, not surprisingly, yielding a reputation for delays and mismanagement. Ethiopia, the continent’s second largest country by population, shows considerable ambition for air dominance. 

Despite losing the tag of the region’s travel hub to Kenya, and, arguably, operating an inferior carrier in terms of service quality, Bole’s plans for expansion are enormous. It aims to quadruple its current passenger handling to 25 million in several years. More importantly, however, the country will focus on expanding its cargo terminal which currently handles only about 115,000, a little more than a third of Nairobi’s airport. If the expansion plans become reality, Addis-Ababa will become home to an African super airport.  

7) King Shaka International Airport, Durban, South Africa

Durban, South Africa’s third largest city after Johannesburg and Pretoria, is home to a modern airport built in 2010, a month before the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It can cater for an impressive 7.5 million passengers despite the city’s size being only slightly above half a million. Understandably, there are no current plans for expansion for the passenger terminal and neither for the modernised cargo terminal, whose volume capability is way above Durban’s current needs. 

6) Sharm El-Sheikh International Airport, Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt

Before the Arab Spring Egypt ranked 18th in the list of 20 most visited countries, according to the international tourist arrivals index. This huge influx of people amounted to 11.3% of Egypt’s total GDP. Among the country’s top destinations Sharm El-Shaikh earned a status as Europe’s favourite holiday location. Many factors influenced this position – its vicinity to the old continent, cheap prices, an abundance of lush hotels and clear and warm waters, ideal for diving and any kind of water sports. 

Today, however, the passenger capacity of 7.5 million at Sharm El-Sheikh does not operate at full potential. Egypt’s revenues halved since 2010. But the tourism industry is optimistic and the city’s major role in luring beach-lovers is to be restored – hence the plan to expand the airport further, to 18 million passenger annual capacity by 2025.

5) Mohammed V International Airport, Casablanca, Morocco 

Morocco, being the 6th largest economy in Africa and 11th most populated country, is a major international player both in terms of trade and tourism. The country is strengthening its position as a European export base, with many Japanese and American business ventures setting up in the country. 

Casablanca is Morocco’s main base for this operation and is increasingly dubbed Africa’s “modern financial hub”. Mohammed V International Airport currently handles 8 million passengers per year, but the air traffic, according to the National Airports Office, is increasing steadily by 7.28% year-on-year increase. The main Moroccan airport has a capacity to operate 150,000 tones of cargo, not impressive for an economy this large. The 3-hectare cargo facility opened in 2008, but it is clear Morocco will need something bigger in order to sustain its growing economy.

4) Cape Town International Airport, Cape Town, South Africa 

Judging by Cape Town’s plans for its airport expansion, the city feels in a position to grab the continents’ label of Africa’s biggest airport. With a planned passenger capacity of 40 million Cape Town International will be the undisputed winner of the size competition. The planned expansion is scheduled to finish by 2025. It is doubtful whether Cape Town, a city of only 430,000 people, needs such a large airport. The influx of tourists is huge, but for a country of 52 million such grandiose scale may be a little megalomaniac. Nevertheless, Cape Town is in for the game of sky control – whether it will work out we will see in ten years.

3) Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, Nigeria 

Lagos is the most populous city in Nigeria, found in Africa’s most populous nation with the continents highest GDP. It is reasonable, therefore, that Lagos’ Murtala Muhammed International Airport should be in the top in terms of size and capacity. What is surprising, however, is that it is only third, with a capacity of 15 million passengers per year and planned expansion to a mere 20 million. This means that if Cape Town’s expansion is completed the small coastal town will have an airport double the size of Nigeria’s biggest city. Already today Murtala Muhammed Airport receives large  volume of negative comments for its inefficiency, high incidence of luggage loss, and delays. 

2) O R Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa

Or R Tambo International Airport is the main airport in Africa’s second biggest economy, South Africa. Its current capacity of 18 million is impressive. Compared to Nigeria, which reached 180 million inhabitants, Lagos handles just over 8% of the country’s population. Johannesburg, on the other hand, handles about 1/3 of South Africa’s population in terms of passenger capacity. That is a lot by any standard. Still, the city is not planning to stop expanding – the projected enlargement of the airport has already commenced and should finish this year. If completed O R Tambo will become Africa’s biggest airport.

1) Cairo International Airport, Cairo, Egypt

Africa’s largest airport is currently in Cairo - handling 22 million passengers and planning to expand to 30 million. Cairo’s cargo terminal is also immense, at 286,000 tones it is competing with Nairobi – when the expansion finalises the forecast tonnage will rise to 320,000 making it the biggest on the continent. Egypt, being Africa’s third largest country by population and third leading economy, does not surprise with the scale of its infrastructure. 

The proximity to Europe as well as the well-established Star Alliance airline Egypt Air add to Cairo’s International Airport potential. No matter what changes are made in Africa in terms of infrastructural developments, Cairo airport will remain in the top league and, having only Algiers’ Houari Boumediene International Airport to compete with in North Africa, it will prevail as the regional travel hub race.

Related Content


blog comments powered by Disqus