Aviation is one of the industries hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, and Africa has not been spared the plunge in passenger numbers and cancelled routes. But there is one major success story on the continent – the African cargo market is still growing at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world.
Although Africa only accounts for 1.7% of global air cargo, the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) March 2021 report found the continent’s freight volumes increased by 24.6% compared to pre-pandemic March 2019, mainly due to strong trade and investment links with Asia.
Throughout the crisis, cargo has proved to be a vital revenue stream for airlines faced with significant declines in passenger volumes and a useful revenue driver for aircraft manufacturers who can help to convert passenger planes into freight transporters.
As one of the industry’s largest aircraft manufacturers, Airbus has been helping airlines through the transition, Mikail Houari, president of Airbus Africa and Middle East, tells African Business. In May 2020, the Toulouse-based manufacturer began offering a cargo conversion on its A330 and A350 widebody airliners.
“Airbus’s solution covering initially A330 and A350 families shows agility in being able to respond to market demand quickly without any compromise on safety. Even after the health crisis, there could be a strong market demand for cargo carrying capabilities on the main decks for these aircraft,” he says.
One example of an African airline that has made good use of its cargo arm during the pandemic is Ethiopian Airlines. Last March, as the virus was raging around the globe, Ethiopian flew its usually passenger Boeing 787-900 as a freighter to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
It delivered 16 tonnes of essential PPE (personal protective equipment) and other shipments. To do this, Ethiopian temporarily converted part of its fleet to carry cargo rather than passengers. Since then, the company has boosted its capacity on cargo operations.
Ethiopian also used its entire A350-900 fleet for cargo purposes. Seven out of its fleet of 16 jets were converted to freighters by removing all economy seats. The other nine were used either for passengers or for cargo loaded on the economy seats. As a result, Ethiopian has kept all of its A350-900s flying during the pandemic.
Airbus itself has also been trying to help its customers take on the unprecedented logistical challenge of dispatching vaccines worldwide. As well as providing its airline customers with technical support, Airbus military aircraft and helicopters are also helping distribute vaccines, Houari says.
Aircraft sales decline in tough market
Although Africa’s cargo market has fared well during the pandemic, passenger numbers have plummeted. More than 10,000 aircraft were in storage in late February, according to Simple Flying, representing a third of the world’s commercial planes.
Airbus received net orders for 268 commercial aircraft in 2020, compared to 768 in 2019, and delivered 566 aircraft compared to 863 in 2019; 5.8% of the deliveries went to the Middle East and Africa, compared to 25.8% for Asia-Pacific, 20.8% for Europe, 15.2% for North America and 2.1% for Latin America.
To help the industry recover from the decline in passenger numbers, mobile apps such as IATA’s travel pass intend to help people return to the skies safely by helping passengers manage verified Covid-19 tests and vaccines.
Aircraft manufacturers are also hard at work encouraging travellers to return to airlines, their primary customers. Airbus has launched “Tripset”, an application that aggregates and provides flight and travel information to restore passenger trust in air travel.
Tripset publishes the latest and most relevant travel conditions, restrictions and health requirements. It is part of Airbus’s strategy to restore trust in air travel, which is essential to bring back confidence to the industry and eventually drive new aircraft sales.
A timely and historic truce between Airbus and one of its largest rivals could help to improve global sales. On 15 June, the EU and the US agreed a truce between Airbus and its Seattle-based rival Boeing, marking an end to a 17-year-dispute between the two biggest commercial aircraft manufacturers over aircraft subsidies.
The row between the two companies escalated over the years, with both sides accusing the other’s government of subsidising them to make their prices more competitive. The new agreement will suspend the threat of billions of dollars of punitive tariffs for five years. It will be a boost to both manufacturers, as it means they can price more competitively for airlines which also have the option of buying jets from Chinese or Russian companies.
But global recovery will take time. Asked when he envisions the African market recovering, Houari says: “We anticipate that 2019 traffic levels could return by 2023 at best, or 2025 in the worst timeframe, and that the African market will return to the levels of growth seen in the past.”
The Airbus Africa head says financial support from governments and development finance institutions will be critical in helping African airlines recover from the pandemic.
“We already see governments in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda and Uganda taking actions. For airlines, being adaptable is of the essence; with the expected decrease in passenger numbers, airline fleet composition and aircraft versatility will be put to the test.
“More than ever, it will be about flying the right aircraft at the right time, with flexible approaches to business models while operating economically efficient aircraft. Post-Covid will require tailored market and fleet strategies.”
However, Houari says that Africa’s long-term economic growth fundamentals remain strong. Inbound and intra-Africa tourism will continue to contribute to national economies and drive air traffic growth in years to come, he says.
“This short-term economic crisis does not mean the end of long-term economic growth,” Houari says, noting that Africa has some of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
“The increased demand for air transport is a reflection of that growth,” he says.
But a major challenge for Africa is climate change, which can devastate economies, food security and livelihoods. An industry-wide effort is needed to make flying sustainable in the long-term, and Houari wants aviation to lead the decarbonisation of the transport sector.
“Airbus is committed to meeting the Paris Agreement targets and leading the decarbonisation of the aviation sector in full collaboration with all stakeholders. We are convinced that carbon-neutral aviation is not only possible, but achievable within our lifetime. This is why we have the ambition to develop the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035,” he says.
If the sector can clean up its act and operate sustainably, there are many positives. Across Africa, aviation directly supports 6.2m jobs and contributes $56bn to the continent’s regional GDP, according to IATA.
Although the industry has not seen anything on the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic before, Houari says there are some silver linings.
“With every crisis comes opportunity, and the current climate might encourage better collaboration and integration in Africa. African carriers could choose to join forces, thus increasing competitiveness, creating regional hubs, and ultimately speeding up the full implementation of initiatives such as the Single African Air Transport Market.”