The busy and lucrative West African aviation space is dominated by foreign airlines at present as African carriers are too small and fragmented to properly serve the market. But, Martin Rivers reports, a new airline based in Banjul could change the status quo and provide the region with the type of connectivity it needs.
Air connectivity in West Africa has been in dire straits ever since Air Afrique, the transnational carrier part owned by Air France, filed for bankruptcy in 2002.
While numerous small airlines have sprung up across the sub-region, their modest fleets have only succeeded in creating a patchwork of overlapping services – lacking the scale and cohesiveness needed to bind together west Africa’s economic hubs. On routes such as Conakry, Guinea to Accra, Ghana (1,000 miles), detours of 6,000 miles via Paris are commonplace.
For travellers in the sub-region, the root causes are depressingly familiar. Weak infrastructure, high airport taxes and dubious management strategies have all played a part in slowing progress in the aviation sector.
Nor are foreign airlines in any rush to change the status quo. The four main European carriers serving Africa – Brussels Airlines, British Airways, Air France and KLM – all enjoy high demand among West Africans due to limited competition from regional players.
But the launch of Gambia Bird in Banjul last October underscores the renewed appetite among West African nations to reclaim ownership of their skies. The flag carrier, which is 90% owned by the Berlin-based airline Germania, brings together the political backing of Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh with the technical expertise of a German management team. Deploying a fleet of two brand-new Airbus A319s – operated by Germania pilots and cabin crew, and certified to European safety standards – Gambia Bird is spreading its wings not only across the sub-region but also back into the heart of Europe.
“For a long time we did not have a national airline operating out of Banjul International Airport,” explains Malleh Sallah, chief administration officer of Gambia Bird. “Traditionally, during the winter months we have been flooded with Thomas Cook, Monarch, Condor and all the European charter flights. But then in the summer we are stuck with nothing. Gambia Bird gives Gambia the opportunity to continue linking very important European destinations all year round.”
Though the airline serves just two European cities at present – flying once weekly to Barcelona and twice weekly to London Gatwick – plans are afoot to introduce new routes and increase frequencies. An unspecified Scandinavian destination will likely be added in May, while talks have also taken place with airports in France, Italy and the Netherlands. In a bit to fend off competition from Vueling, which will shortly enter the Barcelona-Banjul market, Gambia Bird’s Spanish route will become twice weekly in March. Gatwick flights may then ramp up to three or four times weekly, depending on demand.
Focus on infrastructure
With tourism accounting for close to 20% of Gambia’s GDP, chief commercial officer Karsten Balke reiterates that year-round scheduled flights are vital to ensuring the Gambian economy “is not dependent” on foreign carriers. But he insists that strengthening Banjul as a regional hub will have a ripple effect far beyond the borders of this tiny nation. “We are trying to convince all the other states within the sub-region that we are actually helping them have permanent growth in the tourism market,” he says.
The ‘visiting friends and relatives’ (VFR) market is also key. Citing Gambia Bird’s twice weekly flights to London Gatwick – one of which includes a minor detour via Freetown, Sierra Leone – Sallah explains: “We have really given Freetownians the opportunity to go back home … I’m very proud as a Gambian to see the Gambian carrier facilitating not only travel for Gambians, but also for other indigenes in the sub-region. This has been our vision from day one. We will not only be the gateway to the Gambia. We will also be the gateway to West Africa.”
Establishing Banjul as the region’s dominant intercontinental hub is a long-term goal which has little bearing on the day-to-day operations of this fledgling start-up. For now, Sallah says Gambia’s focus is on bringing airport infrastructure up to speed. “In the short and medium-term our vision is basically to raise the aviation industry to a level that is A-class within the sub-region,” he explains. “We have already seen that the airport is starting to be modernised. We’ve been informed by the Gambia Civil Aviation Authority that they will make quite a few investments, and Gambia Bird will have a special role in this.”
Runway facilities are already above par for West Africa thanks to the US’s space-oriented NASA’s selection of Banjul International Airport as an augmented landing site, to be used in the event of space shuttle emergencies. “Because of that we created the longest runway in the sub-region,” Sallah notes.
With a population of just 1.8m, Sallah accepts that Gambia cannot sustain regular wide-body flights based solely on origin-and-destination traffic. “Of course Banjul cannot fill up an A380,” he says. “We will have to pick up passengers from other destinations.”
He acknowledges, too, that the country’s geographical location – on the West coast of Africa – is “not ideal” in terms of maximising regional catchment areas. A more central location in the sub-region would enable shorter feeder journeys for outbound intercontinental travellers.
Nonetheless, Sallah says Banjul’s hub proposition will be ideally suited to long-haul partners. “If you are looking at intercontinental flights – to South America, the United States, Europe, the Middle East – Banjul has the opportunity based on its location to be an intercontinental hub,” he argues. Negotiations are underway with numerous prospective partners, and “the government realises that when these talks are going on, Gambia Bird has to come in as a partner, as the national carrier”.
In pursuit of its long-term hub aspiration, shoring up connectivity with countries across the sub-region is pivotal to Gambia Bird’s business model. Its regional footprint must be sufficiently large to entice passengers and airline partners alike to transit through Banjul. Without an entrenched feeder network scooping up outbound West Africans – and, conversely, redistributing inbound traffic – the airport will struggle to grow at a faster pace than rival hub candidates such as Accra, Ghana and Lagos, Nigeria.
Route development is priority
Route development has therefore been a top priority for the airline. Its initial regional network comprises Conakry, Freetown, Accra, Dakar in Senegal, and Monrovia in Liberia. But on 1st March Gambia Bird expects to add Bamako in Mali, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. “We are not scared of the political situation in Mali,” Balke says when asked about the military conflict. “We have been there and felt how safe it is [in the capital].” He hints at the possibility of an onward connection to Spain, saying: “Barcelona-Bamako was served by Spanair before they stopped operations. It was quite a successful route.”
Once the next phase of the route roll-out is complete, only a handful of capital cities will be missing from Gambia Bird’s West African network. Cotonou in Benin, Lomé in Togo, and Equatorial Guinea are already being looked at, Balke confirms. But he says the Nigerian city of Lagos remains the biggest obstacle to growth. The Gambian flag carrier has yet to gain traffic rights for the city some eight months after requesting access, despite the Banjul Accord – to which Nigeria is a signatory – enshrining the relevant bilateral agreement.
“We planned four frequencies a week to Lagos early on, and since then we are just waiting, waiting, waiting,” complains Balke. Describing Nigeria as “the biggest market in the West African region”, he questions why the country’s flag carrier, Arik Air, is afforded a monopoly on the Banjul-Lagos route. “They are flying here, but we cannot fly over there … Having this unfair competition will have a major impact,” he warns. Plans for an onward connection to Douala, Cameroon are on hold until Lagos is operational.
With Thomas Wazinski, director of Germania Technik Brandenburg, heading up day-to-day operations as CEO, the expertise of Gambia Bird’s management team is doubtless a major advantage. But the airline is not without competition. Ghana, in particular, has seen a spate of new entrants in recent years – among them Starbow, the fastjet affiliate Fly540, and Hainan Airlines-owned Africa World Airlines. In Togo, Ethiopian Airlines’ subsidiary ASKY has rapidly spread its reach across the sub-region.
Even so, as long as West African connectivity is characterised by “a lot of projects, a small number of aircraft, and no common approach”, Balke says dominance of the skies will be there for the taking. To this end, he is open minded about future partnerships. “We are not coming in and trying to take over the whole market,” he concludes. “We are open to cooperation. We are going into the market with open arms.”