Lack of competition is worse than coronavirus for Africa’s airline industry

2020-03-12 08:45 - Thomas Musongole
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Whether you live in Johannesburg, Lagos, or Dar es Salaam, one thing is abundantly clear to most travelers – even the shortest of flights is surprisingly overpriced, often features substandard services and availability, and then, if you manage to finally get there, the airports either lose your bags or interfere with your belongings.

Some of us have simply become resigned to that reality, while international business travelers learn to shrug and default to “TIA” (this is Africa) as an excuse.

READ: 4 SA airports come out on top at Airport Service Quality Awards 

Now, things are about to get even worse. The global response to the spread of Covid-19 (coronavirus) means that the African airline industry could absorb revenue losses of up to $40 million (about R655.8m at R16.40/$) this year, according to recent comments made by Raphael Kuuchi, a special envoy to Africa of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

To begin with, this is not an industry with much margin to suffer a disruption like coronavirus. Numerous flag carriers across the continent have launched only to fail, while others, like South African Airways, are hanging on by the thinnest of threads thanks to emergency funding from development banks.

So why is it so hard for airlines to succeed to Africa? One could argue that it is because the region is considerably less developed, suffers from an infrastructure gap with the rest of the world, and has massive distances to manage on the continent. All that may be true, but the rest of the world does not work like this.

Consider for example that the average price of a roundtrip ticket booked 90 days in advance from Singapore to Shanghai, a distance of 3 800km, costs $250 (about R4 100). From New York to Las Vegas, a distance of 3 600km, just $200 (about R3 280). From Moscow to Madrid, 3 440km, $250 (about R4 100). 

And yet, from Nairobi to Johannesburg, a route between two of the most important business capitals of the continent and a relatively shorter 3 000km, the average price is a staggering $900 (about R14 757). 

There is not even a daily nonstop flight between Johannesburg and Abuja, the capitals of the “twin engines” of the African economy.

ALSO SEE: Do airlines and airports treat African passengers differently? 

A big part of the problem is the lack of competition, due to factors both systemic and monopolistic.

There are very few airlines and very few service providers who are able to operate in Africa. Some studies even show that most African carriers lose $1.54 (about R25.25) for every passenger they carry, so under the current model, no wonder there are few new players entering the market.

Part of the problem is that most governments see airports as a cash cows to be milked instead of making them their country’s most important income generator. Flight taxes in Africa far exceed global averages, while other logistical costs are sky high.  Jet fuel prices are double in Africa compared to abroad due to excessive fuel taxes levied by governments. 

There is also clearly an infrastructure problem. The issues associated with inadequate airports and services are well known to any frequent traveler in Africa. In fact, the secretary general of the African Airlines Association described the infrastructure quality as “deficient, dilapidated and not coping with the growing airline industry.”  The gap continues to hinder the growth of Africa’s aviation industry and drive up ticket prices.

But of course, some monopolies prefer the status quo. Consider the situation in Tanzania, where its largest international airport at Dar es Salaam still only does a fraction of the traffic received by neighbouring Kenya, despite being the larger country by nearly 10 million people and twice as much territory.

Some analysts indicate that Julius Nyerere International Airport (JNIA) has had trouble competing because of high costs. Swissport Tanzania, one of the two main baggage handling service providers, has had its contract renewed with no public tender for almost 20 years. Now, for the first time, the Tanzania Airport Authority (TAA) says that they plan to make Swissport go through a transparent tender.

Swissport has also been the subject of controversy in South Africa. The State Capture Commission of Inquiry has found that Swissport allegedly participated in tenders without having a license, while in 2018 there was a dispute over the company’s failure to uphold ownership requirements under Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).

SEE: SA's three main airports power up with new charging stations for electric cars 

These problems highlight the importance of greater transparency and better regulatory models to spur competition in the air sector and bring prices down. To address these issues, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently called on African governments to disclose hidden costs such as taxes and fees and benchmark them against global best practices, and eliminate taxes or cross-subsidies on international jet fuel.

Speaking at last year’s Assembly of the African Airline Association (AFRAA) conference, IATA head Alexandre de Juniac said African governments are making a mistake by taxing too much. “Flying is not a luxury—it is an economic lifeline for this continent,” de Juniac said. “That's why it is critical for governments to understand that every extra cost they add to the industry reduces aviation's effectiveness as a catalyst for development.”

So let’s make sure our political leaders understand that they must address these issues head on. We need greater transparency, better regulation, lower taxes, and less monopolistic corruption in order to attract competition and grow. Once we can find the secret sauce to rescue this sector, the benefits will be shared by all.

READ: Travel Africa like an African

*Thomas Musongole is a freelance journalist based in Dar es Salaam focused on the airline sector.

Follow him on Twitter.