Aviation: The African airlines that’ll win are those that aren’t too posh
Recent years have been brutal for African airlines but, in spite of that, there is a new rush to resurrect dead national carriers (in Uganda) or to put bedridden ones in the air again (in Tanzania).
However, Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s biggest and currently most successful airline, is kind of going in the opposite direction.
A few weeks ago, Addis Ababa announced that the airline would be partially privatised and, recently, it shelved plans to create a fleet of smaller aircraft because uptick in demand suggests that the routes where they’d be flown would be better served using larger planes.
Ethiopian also announced that it was in discussions with the Nigerian government for a new national carrier and planned to buy a slice of Eritrean Airlines as the diplomatic thaw between the two neighbouring countries continues.
It’s not clear whether we shall see a new era of African aviation but there is one thing the airlines on the continent are not doing.
African nationalists and activists never tire of speaking about “African solutions for African problems”. But we have never heard about “African airlines for African peculiar flying habits”.
It might well be that having airlines that are built around the special demands of Africa’s unique flying habits is where the magic is.
If you’ve flown often out of the busier west European airports, and the United Arab Emirates, you will have seen this scene a couple of times: An African businessman or woman (often from West Africa) would have bought half a shop of goods in Dubai and, having checked in five massive bags and paid for extra baggage, wants to take in three big suitcases as carry-on baggage.
Of course, the check-in clerk says no, and your African trader gets angry and throws a tantrum. Screaming and alleging racism against African travellers, he or she holds up the check-in queue. Security is called and soon there is an even louder argument, and a scuffle.
All this happens primarily because the traders know that if they don’t travel with their precious goods and send them ahead or later after them, their bags will be opened and the fruits of their hard work stolen. They, therefore, don’t want to let their shopping out of their sight.
This is a real problem, but no African airline has ever seriously tried to address it.
It would seem, then, that the continent’s aviation industry needs an “M-Pesa or Equity Bank moment” — an innovation that is different from the so-called “global standard” and is tailored for our special demands.
What might an ‘airline for Africa’s special flying needs’ look like?
If I were asked to do it, on the routes where traders fly, I would get rid of the front-facing seating. I would redesign the passenger cabin so that travellers sit like soldiers in military transport.
I would then remove half the rows and create open lockers for medium-sized cargo. A trader who has bought 10 suitcases of shoes and clothes would sit with her cargo in the locker infront of her, so she can keep a watchful eye on it.
They would pay a premium for that service.
I would also change the way bags are delivered from the plane to the carousel.
I would sell a pass to traders who travel from Dubai or Shenzhen with their goods that would allow them to be present when it is being offloaded, then sit on the back of the tractor when the luggage is being carried to the conveyor belt, all to ensure that there is no pilferage.
It’s not neat, and might even look desperate, but a lot of good could come out of it. We will avoid those scenes at airports of West African traders threatening to strip naked because they haven’t been allowed to carry in 100 kilos as hand luggage.
It would also help to reduce the losses traders suffer from being robbed at airports, and would create for the airlines more traders who are happy to pay a premium for the privilege.
I, myself, wouldn’t fly “trader class” but I suspect the first African airline that will have the courage to introduce such a service would have a lot of money falling out of its ears.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Debt-ridden South African Airways was recently reported to be leasing out its pilots to other airlines to avoid having to lay them off, and in the process save itself.
Though the stories didn’t clarify it, they suggested that SAA would get a cut from the arrangement.
It’s all a little strange but those are the things that could help to keep the lights on.
By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO