UNITED WE FLY, DIVIDED WE DON’T?
The recently held annual general meeting of AFRAA in Johannesburg sprang a few surprises on delegates and aviation pundits, when none other than Kenya Airways’ CEO Dr. Titus Naikuni had the room go so shtumm that a falling leaf could have been heard, as he floated the idea of the key sub Saharan airlines merging to weather the onslaught of the newly emerged Gulf giants as well as the legacy carriers from Europe, all keenly eyeing the continent’s traffic potential. Participants, according to one regular aviation source who attended the conference, sat up literally pinching themselves to make sure they were not dreaming this up, as Dr. Naikuni elaborated on the competitive threat to African airlines, who, no matter how strong individually or within their alliances, were at the receiving end of Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad and more recently of such emerging giants like Turkish, all expanding their destination network across the continent at the expense of the often weak national airlines but even at the expense of the three African giants, minnows though in comparison to what they face as competition in the skies above Africa.
AFRAA had in recent years launched a number of initiatives bringing together member airlines to save in joint fuel purchases and through other cooperative measures, but none could have imagined that the CEO of one of sub Sahara’s leading airlines would go as far as suggesting a merger to create a pan African carrier of substance, means and reach able to compete on its own terms with their global opposition.
Dr. Naikuni was quoted as having said that unless the current fierce rivals joined hands and more, their individual future would be bleak and survival uncertain, inspite of the ambitious growth plans Ethiopian, South African and Kenya Airways had formulated for themselves.
Surprisingly did the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines sing from the same hymnsheet when he supported the concept, confirming that size in aviation did indeed matter and that the idea of a pan African aviation group should be seriously discussed among suitable partners.
The discussions following in Johannesburg were spiced up it appears by ET and SAA belonging to rival Star Alliance while KQ of course is a member of SkyTeam but comparisons were swift to be drawn with global developments. Only three major groups remain in Europe, where decades ago single national airlines dominated their home market, mergers in South America were taking the aviation industry into the 21st century and at last there is movement in the Gulf too as Qatar Airways will join One World, Emirates has teamed up – subject still to regulatory approvals – with Qantas and Etihad has started a strategic buying spree with stakes in Air Berlin, Air Lingus, Air Seychelles and notably having talks with Indian airlines about taking a possible stake, maybe in Jet Airways, which would further allow them a foot in the door in one of the world’s most populous countries, now at the threshold of becoming a ‘developed nation’ inspite of the many challenges India still faces.
Past experience in Africa is of course far from promising, as Air Afrique’s ascent and decline will attest to. Countries have also entered into bilateral air services agreements with foreign airlines, where in particular Gulf airlines have shrewdly exploited the often hapless negotiators from African countries to secure hugely favourable terms for their own airlines, while in turn other African airlines are kept shut out over competitive fears and political disagreements, something which needs to be overcome on the fast track if even talks of a new sub Saharan mega carrier could begin in earnest.
Even though, the combined volumes of the three potential partners, more may of course join the bandwagon if this is to move along and become reality, would still be just about half of Emirates passengers. Interesting enough have rumours emerged from the Gulf of a potential like up between at least two of the leading airlines, and though swiftly dismissed by both of them as a mere fantasy and invention of ‘nosey journalists’ there clearly is more to it than meets the eye, considering the stringent denials by Qatar Airways about joining and alliance as ‘not being the right time’ only to be confirmed two days later.
Time to take stock and undoubtedly AFRAA will facilitate further talks and behind the scenes discussions to drive the agenda for African aviation forward. With the unthinkable now said and standing in the proverbial room, the floodgates have opened to brainstorm and to start developing a strategy for an airline, which could take Africa truly to the next level and merge the tag lines of The New Spirit of Africa, Inspiring New Ways into something bigger and better and truly making it The Pride of Africa.
As said before, fodder for thought and perhaps an opportunity to take African aviation forward united together instead of being swallowed up one by one divided. Watch this space.