Major African airlines overview

Kenya Airways. Kenya’s flag carrier, which is the third-biggest airline in sub-Saharan Africa, is majority owned by the government of Kenya and Air-France KLM. It has reconfigured its service strategy over the past couple of years: some European services have been cut, while the number of domestic, intra-African and Asian flights has been increased. Most […]


Kenya Airways. Kenya’s flag carrier, which is the third-biggest airline in sub-Saharan Africa, is majority owned by the government of Kenya and Air-France KLM.

It has reconfigured its service strategy over the past couple of years: some European services have been cut, while the number of domestic, intra-African and Asian flights has been increased. Most recently, a new service was launched between Nairobi and Abu Dhabi (AUH) in conjunction with a code sharing agreement between Etihad Airways and Kenya Airways. Etihad already has several other code sharing agreements in Africa.

Ahmad Al Haddabi, the chief operations officer of Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC), said: “Abu Dhabi International Airport’s new partnership with Kenya Airways will provide a vital connection between Abu Dhabi and Nairobi, allowing for increased trade, travel and connectivity between two growing economies in two important regions. The new route will also further enable AUH to act as the Middle East’s gateway to Africa, the second-most-populated continent in the world.”

The biggest recent domestic development was the addition of nine new flights a week on its Nairobi-Kisumu service in April, taking the total number of weekly flights on the key east-west route up to 34.

Kenya Airways is expanding its services to Southern Africa. It is due to begin flights from Nairobi to Chileka Airport in Malawi via Lusaka in Zambia in June. The airline already flies 10 times a week to Lilongwe, as well as Gaborone, Harare, Johannesburg, Luanda, Nampula and Ndola. It has also introduced an additional flight to Maputo.

Kenya Airways chief executive Titus Naikuni said: “There is increasing demand for air travel in the continent which makes Africa the new growth frontier in the aviation industry. It is, therefore, important for us to continue to grow our presence across the continent to meet this demand.”

South African Airways (SAA)

Although a bigger airline, SAA has adopted many of the same policies as Kenya Airways. In the face of growing competition from lowcost airlines on domestic routes, it is seeking to expand through new services to China, India and other parts of Asia.

SAA too has recently signed an agreement to cooperate more closely with Etihad of the United Arab Emirates. The two airlines are to route share on 22 services, including to Shanghai, Singapore and Istanbul, while they plan to investigate joint procurement and maintenance. New code sharing agreements have also been signed with Jet Airways of India and Air Seychelles.

Air Seychelles chief executive Cramer Ball said: “Our flights to Johannesburg have been incredibly successful, reflecting an increasing number of travellers coming out of South Africa to the Seychelles for leisure, business and sport. Traffic from South Africa has grown at a steady pace of 11% each year for the past decade.”

Travel companies are taking advantage of the flights to promote twin centre holidays: a week on safari in South Africa and then another week’s beach holiday in the Seychelles. The deal with Jet Airways, which will give SAA access to nine Indian cities via its existing Johannesburg-Mumbai service, is also partly motivated by tourism.

SAA is seeking to promote South Africa as a holiday destination for South Asians, as the number of Indian visitors to South Africa is already increasing by 20% a year. The South African airline hopes to promote Johannesburg as a hub airport for Indian visitors to the whole continent, as it flies to 26 destinations in other parts of Africa from Johannesburg.

The company made another pre-tax loss in financial year 2011–12, of R1.3bn ($143m). The opposition Democratic Alliance has renewed its call for SAA to be privatised and while there seems little likelihood of this being carried out for the foreseeable future, there is growing pressure for the losses to end. Under government instruction, the airline presented its long-term turnaround strategy to Pretoria in April, although the details will only be published once it has been sanctioned. SAA had planned to launch a bond issue to raise much-needed capital but recently shelved the issue in favour of a more expensive R1.5bn ($164m) bank loan.

Ethiopian Airlines

As the second-biggest airline in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopian Airlines has become a symbol of the new-found economic confidence of Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular. It regularly wins industry awards and is rapidly expanding its service network and fleet size.

It is state owned and commercially operated, so international services that are politically advantageous but not commercial are not considered. However, with the company performing strongly and Addis Ababa Bole International Airport well established as one of Africa’s most important hub airports, the government does now expect it to promote domestic development by offering a comprehensive range of domestic routes.

Ethiopian is using its designation as the official carrier of the 50th anniversary of the OAU-AU to promote its continental roots. Ato Tewolde Gebremariam, the chief executive of Ethiopian, said: “Our main hub, Addis Ababa, is the political and diplomatic capital of Africa and Pan-Africanism is part and parcel of our corporate DNA.

For close to seven decades, we have been manifesting our Pan-Africanist creed by serving as a presidential airline for newly independent African countries in the early 1960s; by bringing Africa together and closer to the world in good and bad times; by promoting Africa throughout the world; by always being an aviation technology leader in the continent; and by providing training and aviation services to sisterly African airlines.”

As with SAA, Ethiopian is seeking to tap into the Indian tourist market. It hopes to launch services from Addis Ababa to Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata, in addition to its existing Addis-Mumbai and New Delhi routes.

Esayas Woldemariam Hailu, the company’s senior vice president for global sales, revealed: “We have so many packages for Ethiopian and African tourism which will bring the cost down. A new destination which is yet not explored always comes with a premium, but we may minimise our cost and offer discounts to our customers.”

The company employs Boeing 767-300s on its New Delhi service, and introduced the Dreamliner 787 on the Mumbai service when restrictions on the aircraft’s use were lifted in April. All 787s were grounded in January after one caught fire in the US but Ethiopian was the first airline to be given the go-ahead to resume use of the plane, on its Addis-Nairobi service. As part of the biggest global airline network, the Star Alliance, Ethiopian flies to 72 international destinations and has set a goal of becoming the biggest airline in Africa by 2025.

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