Helping Africa take off

The African GHI Stakeholders’ Conference made its return, taking place from 12-13 September at the Century City Conference Centre in Cape Town, South Africa.

Africa is home to 17% of the global population but only 2% of global aviation. It is a market eager to take off and fulfil its potential but aviation is held back by poor infrastructure, outdated equipment, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy and a lack of coordination between different nations. Political instability affects the market, with conflict erupting in Sudan earlier this year and the military coups in Niger and Gabon over the summer.

Opening the conference, Portfolio Director & Conference Chairman Max Gosney said African aviation is full of hope, though the old challenges remain with load factors below the rest of the world, around 70% and a lack of progress ratifying a single African sky.

There is reason to be optimistic, demand in revenue passenger kilometres was up 90% in Q1 of this year, 90 million passengers are expected to fly by the end of the year and the population of Africa is set to double to 2.5 billion by 2050. Air passengers are expected to grow to 260 million in the next 15 years, which means more GSE and airport infrastructure will be essential.

Speaking to the audience, Gosney said: “I want to congratulate you, the trailblazers, for seeing the opportunity here in Africa early and getting behind it by supporting the conference.”

The first speaker was Markus Becker, Managing Director of the conference’s Platinum Sponsor, Global Load Control, delivering the presentation, Market Outlook, where he discussed how low or high the growth could be and the four scenarios he saw.

Post-pandemic recovery has been mixed, with Nigeria having 60% more seats available than 2019, Egypt is up 30%, Ethiopia up 14% while South Africa is down 27% partly due to the collapse of Comair.

Due to African geography, aviation is often the only option for travelling between countries, and that frequently goes via a third-country, usually in the Middle East and sometimes in Europe. Around 50% of international travel on the continent is carried out by non-African carriers and 40% of take-offs and landings in Africa are done by non-African airlines. Travelling within Africa is challenging due to African passports being less powerful than European ones.

Equipment is an issue for African aviation, with Becker commenting: “We often have old equipment and it tends to be more expensive in Africa than the rest of the world and we are often an afterthought for GSE manufacturers.”

Airport infrastructure is often old and large investments are known to fall into disrepair quickly due to inadequate maintenance. In other places, brand new infrastructure has old processes and furniture imposed on it.

Technology is being used in some key markets but not extensively, said Becker. There is a lack of standardisation with a licence in one country being invalid in neighbouring countries. Safety has improved vastly but is still not as good as other continents.

Becker sees four scenarios, the first one being a glide path where growth continues slowly and progress is made creating a single African sky and the African Free Trade Agreement becomes more effective. Under this scenario, the African flying class remains stagnant and improvements are imported using foreign carriers.

The worst-case scenario is fading skies where progress is reversed. Under fading skies, again, the flying class remains stagnant and integration efforts go backwards, making Africa less important and its global market share will decrease from its already small share of 2%.

The third scenario will see pockets of growth with some countries growing strongly while most countries will get left behind. Becker calls the best-case scenario Cleared for Take-off , which sees continental integration, the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) being implemented and the African flying class growing. Standardisation will drive down costs, safety will improve and demand will grow from within Africa.

Becker urged the ground handling and aviation community to focus on integration for the sake of Africa’s economy and its people. He said: “Wherever we have the possibility to drive integration, it is our duty and responsibility to do this.”

The future is not a given, Becker told the audience, and Africa needs to be resilient and prepare for many possible futures. Africa is resilient, he said, having had to deal with many problems, which was proved during the pandemic but it also has a habit of following the developed world.

“If Africa really wants to achieve this home-grown future, we need to rely on ourselves, we need to invest in ourselves and make sure we create an African future for the aviation industry. This does not mean that international aviation will not play a role but to truly achieve what we can, we need to use our uniqueness to reach our full potential,” said Becker.

Things can only get better?

“African aviation – how do we go from good to great after the Covid crisis?” was the title of The GHI Big Debate, where experts talked about how Africa can transform itself. The experts agreed that Africa is an important developing market with William Sheeran, Senior Procurement Manager at Emirates saying the airline is back at 2019 levels and looking at future opportunities. The ground handling sector needs more competitive market forces to drive growth and innovation

“From a ground handling perspective, I see a lot of opportunities. I think there needs to be more competitive market forces within the market to really drive growth and innovation so I think there needs to be a discussion around how that can happen,” he said.

Speaking with his Airports Council International (ACI) hat on, Tawanda Gusha, CEO of Airports Company Zimbabwe said some parts of Africa are doing well and others are lagging behind.

“What we have been encouraging our members to do is keep innovating, let us move away from the traditional way of doing things. Adapt, otherwise we will perish. ACI does not want any country to be left behind,” said Gusha.

The market needs to be liberalised with both domestic and international markets needing to be opened up, said Becker. The restrictive bilateral agreements continue to shock Becker, even within regions, giving South Africa and Namibia as an example.

The presence of international players in Africa can be a positive thing, he added, saying: “We need to work together in a collaborative way as stakeholders to get world-class standards and quality of processes and technology used on the continent.”

Attracting and retaining talent is a recurring theme of conferences. The technology sector in Africa is larger than people would believe, especially in countries such as Kenya, so that attracts a lot of talent, while aviation professionals take up opportunities abroad.

Jobs were slashed during the pandemic and many do not want to return to aviation while many younger people have never flown so would not consider a career in aviation.

Charles Wyley, EVP MEAA at Menzies Aviation said mindsets have changed from viewing aviation as romantic to people deciding they no longer fancy climbing into a hold at -20 degrees in the US or +40 degrees in the UAE. Subsidies such as furlough schemes did not help.

If staff get through the first three months, they usually stay but Wyley admitted 100% staff turnover in markets such as the US is normal, which is not good for business or quality of service.

Technology is a way to attract the young; Becker said early in Global Load Control’s existence, the team realised training was not out there so it had to be done in-house. South Africa has 60% youth unemployment so technology can help the young launch a career in aviation, whether in Africa or abroad.

He said: “We find that most people, once they find out about us and start working for us, they get excited about aviation through the technology and then they want to know more about aviation.”

Buying the right equipment

Ground operations are making important contributions to making aviation more sustainable. Investments are being made in electrification and other alternatives to internal combustion engines but going electric requires the right infrastructure.

The industry is going through a transition period so equipment needs to be flexible to cope with current operations and developments over the next 15-20 years.

Using the well-used acronym, KISS (keep it simple, stupid), Bob Gurr, Country Manager South Africa at Proflight Zambia said Africa needs simple solutions for GSE. Pockets of Africa are sophisticated where the latest innovations would be suitable, but that is not the case in most places.

“Handlers and airlines should not be taken in by all the shiny bells and whistles that equipment may have when you may not need to use them and they may be very difficult to maintain in a real-world African environment,” said Gurr.

GSE must be easy to maintain with locally sourced spare parts if possible, which is possible with standard diesel units. Asking GSE manufacturers not to be off ended by his comments, Gurr said Africa has suffered from the inability to obtain spares in a timely manner, which can result in kit sitting idle for weeks waiting for a part.

Gurr implores equipment manufacturers to slash spare part turnaround times and he wants universal equipment which can fit more than one type of aircraft and is not too specialised.

Gurr believes that OEMs understand they need to help keep the equipment running, with manufacturers having representatives in countries who can troubleshoot and fix equipment with local resources.

It is still a problem when a key piece of equipment is not working and spare parts are not available, other equipment is cannibalised or mechanics make creative repairs.

He said: “You can end up with a piece of equipment which the OEM comes to inspect and looks horrified to see what has happened to the piece of equipment but it still works. One of the problems being in the industry as long as I have, is this type of scenario used to happen quite a bit in the years gone by due to the problems with spare parts but I don’t think that it is such a big issue now.”

Next stop, Nairobi

With Table Mountain visible from the conference centre, the 6th African GHI Stakeholders’ Conference had one of the most picturesque backdrops. More than 130 visitors came through the door and 20 companies had stands, putting the numbers at the same level of the 5th conference held in 2019.

African aviation has always been fragmented, which has held the industry back, making intra-African services particularly challenging. Speaking after the show had finished, Gosney expressed his hope that African nations could work together for the good of the continent.

He said: “There is such a temptation here in Africa to focus on national interests but the communal approach of working together with the multiplication of gains and opening of markets with a single African sky will have greater benefits than putting self interests first. We have got to work as a team and the team that works together wins together.”

Next year, the event will return to Nairobi so the conference can engage with different members of the African aviation industry. The 7th African GHI Stakeholders’ Conference will be held from 15-16 October 2024 at The Safari Park Hotel & Casino.