Thursday, October 21, 2010

An interesting... willy nilly flight schedule

Jacob Zuma, in Cairo for a high-level state visit, has publically announced that infrastructure has contributed to holding back development of trade in Africa. He specifically mentioned air travel and the lack of direct flight routes within our continent being a concern:

"If you wanted to reach some countries on the continent, you'd have to go to Europe first, then sleep on the way, wake up in the morning, wait until sunset and then fly back to Africa. That must come to an end." (quote pinched from Fin24's report (and to be fair, he also said a load of other stuff too)).

In doing so, Zuma has made it clear that he has no idea how airlines or air travel works. Firstly (small point), he is in Cairo, from which there is a direct and daily Egypt Air flight to Johannesburg. Ahem, it's our own SAA that doesn't fly to Cairo.

Secondly, airlines run on tiny margins, so routes that don't make money are cut, and cut swiftly. If there is no direct flight between Gabarone and Ouagadougou, it is because the route is not commercially viable. Once cannot expect an airline to make a loss just so we can fly direct everywhere.

One of the reasons Zuma lists transfers in Europe (for some reason not mentioning the Middle East) is because there is commerical traffic between African cities and European ones. There is enough to justfy a route between Lagos and London with British Airways, for example. There is also enough to sustain a route between Durban and Dubai (on Emirates). Frankfurt and Addis Ababa (Lufthansa). Madrid and Casablanca (Iberia). Paris and Algiers (Air France). And so these are the large flight centres we use if SAA or one of the big other African airlines can't deliver us there.

All of these major European and Middle Eastern airlines fly to other African destinations, so the Emirates flight from Durban can link us up with Khartoum. I don't see enough traffic between the Banana Boys and one of the world's worst summer holiday destinations to make that a viable route, but as both sustain enough traffic to make a route to Dubai viable, it works.

If Zuma wants these direct routes he should start by making our perenial somehow-loss-making-even-though-it-has-amazing-and-busy-routes parastatal to start hooking up with African centres.

There is no SAA flight route between Johannesburg and Cairo (although there is codeshare with Egypt Air), or Joburg and Kigali, Abuja, Abidjan, Tripoli, Algiers or anywhere in Morocco. Why do you think this is, Mr Zuma?

SAA only serves about 40 destinations (excluding Star Alliance partners). Kenya Airways (with Sky Team alliances) and Ethiopia Airlines serve about 50 destinations.

Now, compare that with British Airways which serves 370, Lufthansa which operates routes incorporating 202 cities on its own. Emirates flies to over 100. Is it any surprise that decent flight connections to African destinations sometimes involve leaving the continent? Can I hear a resounding NO?

Mr Zuma, if you want direct flight routes around Africa, develop the trade. Set the gound work. Build the relationships. Due to profitability opportunity and gaps in the market, the airlines will follow you.

Do not expect them to lead the way.

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