Will the Gulf answer African aviation's SOS?

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Passenger traffic in Africa rose 9.8 percent during May — the second highest rate for any region, according to IATA.

Passenger traffic in Africa rose 9.8 percent during May — the second highest rate for any region, according to IATA.

Africa is home to more than 1 billion people across 54 countries and is for the next two years forecast to see record levels of foreign direct investment and an average rate of GDP growth double that of the rest of the world.

With foreign trade and disposable incomes also on the up, one could expect the continent’s aviation sector to be a main benefactor of this boom.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

High costs have been the crux of the problem, caused by a combination of punitive airport fees charged by national governments keen to protect their own carriers, and sky-high insurance premiums due to poor safety records and soaring fuel costs.

Demand for air travel in the continent is clearly there though. According to figures from the International Air Transport Association, passenger traffic in Africa rose 9.8 percent during May — the second highest rate for any region.

With carriers from outside the continent, including those in the Gulf, willing to step in and fulfil long-haul demand, Africa’s operators are increasingly re-tooling their strategies in order to survive. But while Gulf airlines are one of the biggest threats facing the industry, they are also one of its greatest opportunities.

Kenya Airways is sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest airline, following South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines. It boasts a relatively modern fleet — including orders for nine Boeing 787 Dreamliners — and a network of more than 50 destinations across Africa, Europe, India and the Far East.

In its most recent financial year, the carrier posted a worse-than-anticipated loss of 7.9 billion Kenyan shillings (KES) ($92m), following a net profit of KES1.6bn the previous year. The shock deficit was partly caused by travel warnings issued by European Union countries during recent presidential elections, as well as the fallout of military operations against Islamic terrorists in neighbouring Somalia.

As a result of dwindling traffic through Europe, Kenya Airways has cut its capacity on these routes by more than a fifth. To counter the effect of this, the airline is increasingly looking to new markets as it seeks to develop Nairobi as a hub through which to channel traffic to underserved destinations in eastern and southern Africa.

The Gulf is a big part of this strategy. The airline flies to both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, both cities with large African expat populations, and also has in place a codeshare deal with Etihad Airways, the UAE’s cash-rich flag carrier.

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