THE woes of major national carriers on the continent have been well documented this year—with the record loss posted by Kenya Airways still fresh in many minds— but this has not deterred an increasing number of African countries from planning or launching new flag carriers.
Countries from Nigeria and Zambia to Uganda and South Sudan are all exploring creating new airlines, as they push back against the economic realities of depending on foreign or privately-owned carriers, but there is also a healthy dose of the pursuit of national pride.
Last Friday, two Airbus A320 jets took off from Kinshasa’s Ndjili international airport, flagged off by a beaming president Joseph Kabila, heralding the start of operations by Congo Airways.
The new national airline, partly developed by Air France, replaces Lignes Aeriennes Congolaises (LAC), which went bankrupt in 2003, with Congolese officials saying it was sorely needed in the vast country where nearly all airlines are blacklisted by the European Union and most flights are run by the United Nations.
The head of Congo Airways, Claude Kirongozi, said the air transport sector “has been marginalised for a long time, with as a consequence the blacklisting of all the air transport companies operating in Congo.”
Congo Airways will initially operate services to eight towns and cities, with this projected to be expanded to 14 after three years. No date was given for the start of commercial flights, but it is expected to be a matter of weeks.
The Congolese airline joins a growing list of African countries pursuing a flag carriers-a particularly grand gesture that asserts a country’s visibility but which is rarely supported by economic fundamentals.
In August, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari directed quick action on the establishment of a new airline for the country. A 13-member committee, set up in just two weeks, has just got down to work, with its terms of reference including ’to consult with interested international partners on setting up a national carrier on public-private partnership basis,’ and ‘to develop the best model for the airline for Nigeria’.
Buhari, sworn in in May, said that he was worried that a country of Nigeria’s stature—as the continent’s largest economy—did not have its own airline. State-owned Nigeria Airways stopped operations in 2003, and the country’s biggest airline is now closely-held Arik Air Ltd, which is based in Lagos.
Going belly up
In his state of the nation speech last month, Zambia president Edgar Lungu said the government plans to start operating a national airline in 2016, towards which it has made “significant progress” including $1.7 billion earmarked for upgrading airports.
Flag carrier Zambia Airways was liquidated in 1994, with a clutch of successive attempts such as Aero Zambia, Zambian Airlines and Zambezi Airlines also going belly up.
In March, the chief executive of Ethiopian, Tewolde Gebremariam, disclosed that the carrier, in addition to being in discussion with Nigeria, was in talks with Uganda, South Sudan and the DRC to help set up national airlines.
Ethiopian Airlines in its last financial year that closed in June made more profit than the rest of Africa’s aviation industry combined— a count that includes Kenya Airways, South African Airways and the North African carriers.
In signs of another tie-up, former long-serving Ethiopian Airlines chief Girma Wake is now the chairman of RwandAir, which has been seeking a strategic partner.
But Uganda, which had been looking to revive state airline Uganda Airlines more than a decade after its liquidation, and South Sudan both appear to have put their plans on ice, in recognition of the inherent difficulties of running a carrier.
The two countries, together with Kenya and Rwanda, form the Northern Corridor Integration Projects—focused on infrastructure links—partners. Early this month it was reported that they were receptive to shelving their search for national airlines to promote the existing Kenya Airways and RwandAir.
The plan is reportedly to create a single airspace for the four countries.
According to the African Development Bank, 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa currently operate state-owned carriers. Nearly all—with the significant exception of Ethiopian Airlines—survive only due to heavy government subsidies.
Another 25 countries have scrapped their flag carriers in favour of private operators, while three others have never had an operator.
For the countries that have nevertheless pushed on with small national carriers, they are finding the going tough, showing the battle that Congo Airways faces to remain in the sky.
Senegal Airlines, set up in 2009 after the collapse of Air Senegal International, operated its first flight in 2011. But with just two planes like its Congolese counterpart, it is now struggling to stay afloat, with government planning to nationalise it as part of restructuring.
President Macky Sall in March said the carrier needed new planes and managers to give it a chance of turning in a profit.
In Tanzania, the government is considering selling a stake in Air Tanzania in a turnaround strategy.
“At the moment we don’t have enough aircraft to compete in the business,” he said. “We are just maintaining our presence while awaiting a final move by government,” acting Chief Executive Officer Johnson Mfinanga was quoted saying last month.
Any decisions on proposals to seek private investment for expansion following a study conducted by the World Bank this year have been delayed until after the national elections set for October 25, Mfinanga said.
For the new carriers, resilience will seemingly be the byword following the financial trauma of the last few years for African carriers, with the alternative being to do ‘an Ethiopian’ and not beat but outtightly flatten the odds.