As Africa's own startup airlines begin to take off, the global alliances are taking note. But beyond these alliances, expect some merger activity to take place as well, among the African startup airlines as well as larger global players buying stakes.
While Asia seems to be the present focus of airline alliances, and for good reasons considering the huge growth markets of China and India – the latter rapidly liberalizing now and offering new investment opportunities – Africa remains on the map of all three major global networks – Star, SkyTeam, and OneWorld.
Aviation on the continent remains fragmented, often caused by national egos, prepared to give foreign airlines greater access to their skies than airlines from neighboring countries or from across the continent. This has led to a sharply-increased market share by the Gulf giants like Emirates, Qatar Airways, and increasingly Etihad, too, with Turkish Airlines playing successful catch up, eyeing 40 African destinations by the end of 2013.
European legacy carriers like Lufthansa – combined with Brussels Airlines and Swiss, Air France, and British Airways have also cemented their positions of routing traffic into and out of Africa.
But while intercontinental connectivity from and to Africa can only be described as between good and excellent, the bulk of the travelers use foreign airlines, leaving the main African airlines to struggle for market share.
In addition to this battle for the skies between airlines, unfolds the battle between the global alliances.
Star Alliance has three key African airlines in their stable – Egypt Air, Ethiopian, and South African – effectively covering the continent directly and indirectly, as Ethiopian, through their stake in ASKY, also offers a foothold in West Africa. Ethiopian remains the biggest asset for Star in Africa, presently being the largest airline on the continent, the first to fly the B787 Dreamliner and the one with the largest network from their Addis Ababa hub.
In contrast, South African Airways appears in crisis after most of the board and key management figures resigned in recent months and no clear strategy is evident about such crucial issues as destination roll out on the continent or the overdue fleet renewal. Star Alliance is reportedly seeking ways and means to assist government-owned South African to resolve their challenges and continue to play a key role to serve Africa from the southern end of the continent.
Egypt Air, after a turbulent 2011 when the fallout of the country’s political crisis took its toll, has left the worst behind them, but worries remain over the latest political unrest, which could bring back crisis mode to North Africa’s largest airline.
SkyTeam’s African member, Kenya Airways, offers their alliance partners access across the continent, and plans are afoot to connect every African political and commercial capital with flights to Nairobi by the end of next year. KLM’s shareholding in Kenya Airways and two seats on the board are considered immensely valuable to shape the future strategy for Kenya Airways and align it with AF/KLM’s own objectives of how to remain a major player on the continent.
At least one source close to SkyTeam has indicated that the world’s second largest alliance is looking for another foothold in Africa, with carriers in North and West Africa being courted, but nothing concrete has emerged as yet and as long as Kenya Airways continues to increase its own footprint on the continent, SkyTeam’s interests remain looked after, for now.
This leaves OneWorld, already in the unenviable third spot of the global alliances, completely unrepresented in Africa by any partner from among the leading African airlines, an omission which might prove costly in the longer term as the continent increasingly stands taller with a rising economic clout after the discovery of more and more gas and oil deposits in particular along the Eastern African coastline. African connectivity for OneWorld will greatly improve when Qatar Airways will formally join next year but still leave the alliance trailing in terms of flights, destinations, and passengers.
But while the alliances are vying for superiority in Africa, Kenya Airways’ CEO, Dr. Titus Naikuni, has, at the recently-concluded AFRAA General Assembly, done the unthinkable, or hitherto unthinkable, when he urged fellow aviation leaders Ethiopian and South African to consider an African airline partnership, if not outright merger between the three. While still small in global terms, the three would nevertheless be able to spur an airline renaissance for Africa and build critical mass, urgently needed to stand any chance over the coming decade to survive the onslaught of the likes of Emirates, Turkish, and others spreading their wings into Africa.
Time to think big, time to bring NEPAD’s vision for the continent into African aviation?
A source close to AFRAA in Nairobi let it on that such an African alliance would get their fullest support, and in spite of a different alliance parentage, ET and SAA being in the Star camp and Kenya Airways being in the SkyTeam camp, perhaps for once Africa’s strategic interest could supersede foreign interests and in the process create a continental aviation force able to hold its own and become a pioneer for Africa’s march towards becoming this century’s global economic powerhouse.
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