Opinion: Africa is Soaring to New Heights: The Impact of Air Network Expansion on African Markets & Trade

Mr Barba Gaoganediwe

When I reflect on the achievements made so far in Africa’s air transport, I strongly believe that The African Union’s Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) initiative is a near reality of our time. A flagship project of the African Union Agenda 2063, this initiative aims to create a single unified air transport market in Africa and position air connectivity as a catalyst in promoting socio-economic, and political integration whilst boosting intra-Africa trade and tourism.

Whilst history shows us that the first passenger airlines were established in Africa in the 1930s, today, the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) has a membership of 50 airlines including all the major intercontinental African operators. (source AFRAA website). Over the decades, significant developments have been achieved with Governments and international organizations investing in various projects aimed at improving connectivity, mobility, trade, and access to basic services across the continent.

Recently during the 8th AFI Aviation Week held in August 2023,  AFRAA’s Secretary General, Mr. Abderahmane Berthe, shared industry data showing African airlines had exceeded their pre-COVID numbers of international routes in October 2022 with intra-African connectivity reaching 87% of the pre-Covid levels during Q3 2022 and exceeded the pre-Covid levels during Q4 of the same year. Furthermore, in 2022, Africa registered a 71.6% load factor, marking a significant increase from 61% in 2021 although still trailing behind the global average of 77.6% for passenger loads.

Despite our vast distances and infrastructure development remaining a challenge in many regions, air travel is a vital lifeline for connectivity and economic growth for Africa. The expansion of air networks across the continent has revolutionized travel and has had a profound impact on African markets and trade, unlocking new opportunities and driving regional integration.

Accordingly, an integrated air access network in Africa bodes well for the broader vision of a single African market and brand proposition. Brand Africa in the overall is about pioneering African solutions with glocal impact. For us in Gauteng, a world class African global city region this is a challenge and desire we have embraced.

Gauteng Air Access Network; winning through collaboration

Recent years have seen a remarkable transformation with airlines expanding their routes, investing in modern fleets, and embracing new technologies to improve efficiency, enhance passenger experiences and heighted intra and inter-continental trade and investment facilitation. 

Aligned with these continental developments is our very own Gauteng Air Access Network (GAAN), a collaborative initiative aimed at enhancing air connectivity to and from Africa’s biggest economic hub – Gauteng Province in South Africa.

This strategic partnership between the Gauteng Provincial Government, the City of Johannesburg, the City of Ekurhuleni, the City of Tshwane (Pretoria), the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA), and other stakeholders aims to stimulate economic growth, tourism, and trade by improving air access. Positioning the province as a leading destination for business and leisure travel, the initiative seeks to attract new airlines and routes, improve existing services, and increase air traffic to and from Gauteng’s airports, including O.R. Tambo International Airport and Lanseria International Airport.

Notably, O.R. Tambo International Airport, located in Johannesburg, continues to hold Africa’s record as the busiest airport in Africa serving as a critical transportation hub for passenger and cargo traffic. Lanseria International Airport on the other hand continue to be the preferred gateway to the province’s only World Heritage Site, the Cradle of Humankind and a true bleisure transit experience.

Gauteng’s advanced air, sea, road, and rail networks have been a key facilitator of trade and commerce, connecting the province to regional and global markets. Since establishing the GAAN network, Gauteng has experienced increased frequency from international air markets, and expansion of new routes in strategic partner markets like Canada, India, and Brazil.

As a matter of fact, by April 2023, a total of 46 airlines were flying through O.R. Tambo International comprised of five domestic airlines, 38 international airlines, and three regional airlines including Air Belgium, Air Cote d’Ivoire, Chilean Latam Airline, Air Algierie, Eswatini Air, as well as Air China from Beijing-Shenzhen to Johannesburg.

We have also seen the resumption of domestic routes with South African Airways and Fly SAfair leading the pack. Much more still needs to be done in this front and that is why the work and partnership focus of the GAAN is crucial. Like in any crisis, new opportunities are created, and the domestic and regional air routes space provides for participation of new players in the market and hyper-localisation.

Promoting interconnectedness among African nations; the higher goal

The expansion of our air networks is positively impacting African economies, with far-reaching benefits for the trade and tourism sectors. As airlines open new routes and increase flights, they create greater accessibility to previously underserved African markets. We are experiencing this improved connectivity driving economic diversification and expanding market opportunities for businesses in Africa.

Promoting regional integration and collaboration is one of AU Vision 2063 main agendas. By connecting cities and countries across Africa, airlines are breaking down barriers to trade and fostering a sense of interconnectedness among African nations. This increased connectivity is encouraging cross-border trade, facilitating knowledge sharing, and promoting cultural exchange.

Africa’s tourism sector has also experienced significant benefits from these developments with more travelers choosing to explore the diverse landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and vibrant cities that the continent has to offer. This influx of tourists is boosting local economies and creating employment opportunities in this ecosystem.

COVID-19 Crisis and Recovery

We must however acknowledge and appreciate that Air travel in Africa is on a steady path to recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. The impacts of the pandemic have been severe resulting in passenger traffic of 54 million in 2020, which was half of 2019 traffic.

Furthermore, revenue losses incurred by both African and foreign airlines operating in Africa were approximately $15B, with African Airlines accounting for $8.6B.

Tragically, about five million of the continent’s seven million aviation and tourism jobs were lost in 2020 with some airlines such as Air Namibia ceasing operations and further filing for bankruptcy. Our very own South African Airways grounded its fleet for one year. Kenya Airways trimmed business trips continentally to an absolute minimum and we witnessed Ethiopian Airlines transforming passenger aircraft into cargo carriers.

The road ahead is promising!

The recent data by the UN World Tourism Barometer shows that we are on a more promising projection and full recovery for air travel is expected in 2024. Africa recovered 96% of pre-pandemic visitors in 2023 with robust demand from European markets.

According to IATA, the region saw a buoyant recovery in international connectivity on intra-regional routes and to Europe and the Middle East. The fourth quarter of 2022 saw passenger traffic reach 85% of 2019 levels while cargo transported in 2022 in Africa reached 87% of the volume handled in 2019.

The signs of recovery are undeniable, but the African air travel industry still faces significant challenges. In Africa, expanding air networks is more than just about air travel. It is about connecting people, boosting economies, and bridging the gaps that have hindered the continent’s growth for centuries. Concerted efforts from governments, airlines, and other stakeholders are needed in the expansion of air networks and unlocking the full potential of Africa’s airspace.

Barba Gaoganediwe is the Head of Destination Marketing & Communications & Spokesperson at the Gauteng Tourism Authority

Enquiries: Barba Gaoganediwe, Spokesperson Gauteng Tourism



@Barba_G74 on Twitter

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