Brussels Airlines’ CEO Bernard Gustin wants travelers to know the entire African continent isn’t engulfed by the Ebola virus, but it’s his message about the virus’ economic impact on West Africa that raises a deeper sense of urgency.
His airline, along with Royal Air Maroc, remain the only carriers serving destinations in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three countries hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic.
Gustin and his team this week launched the “Africa is Not Ebola” campaign to raise awareness that the area affected by the epidemic is no bigger than the combined areas of Virginia and Maryland yet the adverse economic impact reached most of the continent. The campaign will take shape on social media and enlists politician and celebrity ambassadors to help spread the word.
Between last summer and the end of 2014 overall passenger traffic was down 25% between the U.S. and African countries and Gustin said that number is about 20% as of the end of March. For reference, Brussels Airlines typically carries more than 800,000 travelers a year from the U.S and Europe to and from Africa. Between May 2014 and March 2015 the airline served more than 70,000 travelers on flights to and from the three impacted countries, roughly a 15% decrease year-over-year.
The World Bank estimates the three impacted countries, which saw more than 25,000 Ebola cases, will lose at least $1.6 billion in economic growth this year from the epidemic and Sub-Saharan African countries could lose as much as $6.2 billion, due in part to fewer tourist arrivals.
The International Monetary Fund estimates that seven of the world’s fastest-growing economies in 2015 are in Africa, such as Ethiopia, Mozambique and Tanzania, one of the reasons Gustin gave for the campaign’s importance.
“We got a lot of negative backlash at first from people asking us ‘how can you still fly to [Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone] and put lives in danger,'” said Gustin speaking today in New York City. “This is not a marketing or commercial campaign linked to Brussels Airlines as we feel that will help it have more of an impact. We’ve removed our name from the campaign completely.”
The virus underscored the smaller number of airlines serving the continent compared to other regions but direct flights to Africa from the U.S., for example, were in short supply before mass hysteria set in last summer. Falling oil prices in countries such as Ghana and Nigeria will likely help with, but not anchor, some economic growth in the region.
“We can’t rely on oil prices as an indicator of how the economies of Africa are doing,” said Gustin. “American and European carriers should realize the strength in these economies but most of them prefer their long-haul bases in Europe rather than Africa.”