West Africa Is Increasingly Lucrative For Airlines, But Lacks A Hub

By Dana Sanchez Published: August 9, 2016, 5:52 pm
West Africa is increasingly lucrative for airlinesU.S. President Barack Obama and family at Ghana airport, 2009. Photo: wikicommons

West Africa is a lucrative route for many carriers, and the U.S.-West Africa link has become a cash cow since U.S.-based United Airlines exited Lagos in July, taking 3,000 seats off the U.S. route, Graphic Online reported.

Yet West Africa, despite its 40-plus airports and 300 million population in 15 countries, lacks a strong airline and has no airport hub, Graphic.com reported.

Today, 80 percent of all aviation traffic in West Africa is carried by non-African carriers and about 15 percent by non- West African carriers.

East African airline Kenya Airways recorded a 28 percent increase in passengers in West Africa for the year ending June 2016, and attributes the increase in flights to resumed service following an interruption in 2015 by the Ebola epidemic, according to The Exchange.

United Airlines offered nonstop service to Lagos, Nigeria, from its hub in Houston, but discontinued those flights, instead adding flights between San Francisco and Tel Aviv in Israel, USA Today reported.

This left Delta as the only U.S. carrier to offer nonstop service between the U.S. and Africa.

United cited poor financial performance and weakness in the energy sector for ending the route. Houston and Lagos are both key centers for the oil and energy markets.

“The … route has been underperforming financially for several years,” United said in a statement. “Because of its importance to key Houston-based customers, we continued to invest in it; however, the recent downturn in the energy sector has caused these customers to spend less on travel.”

African airlines fill the gap

Ethiopian Airlines quickly plugged three flights a week from Lomé, Togo, to New York, then added a fourth. With about 90 passengers coming out of Lagos on each of its Lomé flights, it might soon go daily, Graphic Online reported.

In 2015, South African Airways started its Accra-Washington, D.C. route four times a week. It is rated as the most profitable route for SAA. Delta Airlines has daily flights to Lagos and Accra.

SAA has three fights a week from Dakar to the U.S. and Cabo Verde Airlines has two flights a week. Nigerian airline Arik Air is the only West African airline with three flights to New York.

There is no strong airline and no airport hub in West and Central Africa, Graphic.com reported.

East Africa, by comparison, has two hubs — in Nairobi, Kenya, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. South Africa’s hub is Oliver Thambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

Vying to be West Africa’s airline hub

To be a hub, an airport must have cheap aviation fuel plus maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities. It also needs an airline to drive the hub, according to travel business consultant Ikechi Uko.

To be a hub, an airport must have a good transfer desk and transit section with transit visas issued on arrival.

As of today, no West African airport has all the ingredients. Ghana wants to claim the spot, offering visas on arrival to all Africans starting July 1. It also reduced the cost of aviation fuel by 25 percent but still lacks a strong airline and maintenance facilities.

Ghana is making up for the absence of a strong carrier by issuing other airlines rights to carry passengers from Accra. South African Airways (SAA) has the right to fly to Washington D.C. for a year. Kenya Airways can fly to Freetown; TAP Portugal to Sao Tome; and Air Maroc, Egypt Air among others, Graphic.com reported.

Togo has a strong airline — Lomé-based ASKY — and cheap fuel, but no visa on arrival and no MRO.

Lagos should be a natural hub but is saddled with operational problems. It has a large pool of international airlines, strong domestic carriers but expensive aviation fuel. It lacks MRO capacity and has a difficult immigration environment.

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