Three years on – has anything changed for African connectivity?

The somewhat shocking truth about connectivity between the ten largest African urban conurbations is that nothing has really changed over the past three years. I first undertook this analysis in 2015, looking to see how many of the most populous cities in Africa were connected to each other. If this was another region of the world it would seem almost unthinkable that two major cities would not have some level of scheduled air service between them. But back in April 2015 only 22 of the 45 possible city-pair connecting Africa’s top 10 cities had airlines regularly ferrying passengers and goods back and forth. Today, that number has hardly changed. Only Abidjan-Kinshasa has gained direct air service, thanks to Air Cote d’Ivoire.

Why is this?

All ten of these cities have populations in excess of 4 million, according to the publication ‘The World’s Cities in 2016, produced by the United Nations. The fact that two cities such as Alexandria and Lagos, with a combined population of over 18 million, are not connected seems strange if these things were driven simply by population and latent demand.

Of course, in the real world, a range of factors affect which city-pairs have direct air services, not least of which are the historic trading and migrant flows between the cities, the economic ties of earlier times. In the case of Africa, this means that it has often been easier – and cheaper too - to travel between two cities via a European hub airport.

There are other factors too. Some of these routes are quite long and right-sizing the aircraft and schedule for this type of undeveloped route is a challenge. Many of the unserved routes have limited indirect traffic and so new air services would be starting from a low base but is there any intrinsic reason why a Lagos-Nairobi service should be feasible yet not a Lagos - Dar es Salaam operation?

Without doubt much of the lack of connectivity in Africa has been due to the restrictions placed on the skies by individual nations, usually in an attempt to protect their carriers. The Yamoussoukro Decision was adopted back in 1999 and promised Open Skies but despite plenty of words about deregulation, the goal of achieving competitive regional markets has not materialised.

The latest step towards liberalisation, the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), launched by the Africa Union in January this year, again aims to commit Africa to improved connectivity. So far only 23 States have signed up. Given the lack of connectivity being achieved between the Continents’ largest cities, it is hard to understand what countries such as Angola, Tanzania and the DRC have to lose by not signing up.

As the years tick by there are, thankfully, some airlines which have been able to seize the opportunity. Ethiopian is one of them. Addis Ababa may be a city which, in terms of population, sits just outside the Top 10 of African cities with a population of 3.3 million, but Ethiopia is home to 102 million people so there is a strong latent demand for air services if the price and schedule is right.

The airline currently serves nine of the top 10 cities in Africa and, although the airport sits rather too east to be a natural hub for the continent, it is clearly taking on that role. Among the Top 10 cities only Nairobi achieves as much connectivity to other Top 10 cities as Addis Ababa does with its Ethiopian Airlines services.

Of course, for airlines wanting to start air services on some of the ‘missing’ routes to Africa’s largest cities, there are plenty of lessons from Ethiopian Airlines. Ethiopian has been operating most of its services to Africa’s major cities for years, gradually increasing frequency and capacity as the market will bear. In April 2018 the average Ethiopian Airlines aircraft flying to these nine cities has 209 seats compared to 180 seats 3 years earlier. However, it is the hub operation at Addis Ababa that is key to making them work. OAG Traffic Analyser shows that on each of the nine routes that Ethiopian Airlines operates from Addis Ababa to the largest cities in Africa, local traffic is a small component. The majority of passengers are connecting at Addis Ababa from elsewhere in Africa as well as from Asia and the Middle East and it is this combination of local and connecting traffic which makes these routes viable.

It is not simply enough for countries to wish for more air services from their national carrier and aim for better connectivity through piecemeal route additions. As Ethiopian Airlines proves, a clear strategy for aviation is needed which allows connectivity on a wider scale. For the moment not every major city in Africa can support a fully functioning hub airport but as the economies of Sub-Saharan Africa continue to grow – and the World Bank predicts growth of 3.2% in 2018 and 3.6% in 2019 and 2010 – so too will demand for air travel. For those airlines and countries getting their approach to aviation right there is the prospect of more economic growth and job creation. There’s no time to waste.

Rebecca is Partner in the air transport consultancy Midas Aviation, based in the UK. She has a deep understanding of what drives demand for air travel globally and has worked with clients on hundreds of air service development projects and provides regular articles and content about aviation markets. She has also been instrumental in the development of a number of industry performance benchmarking tools in the areas of traveller views of airports, on-time performance and connectivity. This article was originally written for AviaDev Africa, taking place in June 2018.

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