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Upington. Sishen. Ndola. Pietermaritzburg. Nelspruit.
You’d be forgiven for struggling to point out these towns on a map of southern Africa. Yes, they’re in Africa.
Farming hubs. Mining settlements. Administrative centers. They’re never going to feature in any glossy travel magazine’s hot list of destinations. But they are key to the ongoing success of Airlink, one of Africa’s largest privately held airlines.
Airlink traces its roots to three small carriers — Magnum Airlines, Border Air and City Air —which merged in the 1980s to form Link Airways. That airline was liquidated in 1992 and bought out by two of its directors, Rodger Foster and Barrie Webb, and soon re-launched as Airlink. Since then it’s grown to become the largest independent airline in the region, serving 37 destinations in nine countries, carrying 1.5 million passengers per year.
From the beginning, Airlink’s strategy has been to operate as a regional feeder carrier, focusing on smaller centers ignored by larger carriers competing on the trunk routes between Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
Airlink is especially prominent by its absence on the crowded Johannesburg-Cape Town route. The busiest air sector in Africa, with more than 34 000 flights and 4.7 million passengers in 2017, it’s long been the crown jewel for South African carriers, and a launch pad for fledgling budget carriers. There’s enormous demand, but also plenty of competition. With its many smaller destinations, Airlink is often the only show in town and the airline has been savvy in aligning its fleet to demand.
“The trick with any airline is to offer as many frequencies as you can to grow the market,” said Linden Birns, independent aviation consultant at Plane Talking. “What Airlink has done very well is to look at where the markets are, and to use the right gauge of aircraft to serve them.”
While Boeing 737s are the workhorse on most regional routes in Africa, Airlink’s mixed fleet has served it well. The carrier operates everything from Cessna Grand Caravans, for its safari lodge service, through to a new 98-seater Embraer ERJ190-AR.
This latest addition grabbed headlines in late 2017 when it touched down on the British-held island of St. Helena, the first scheduled commercial flights in the island’s 500-year history.
Airlink is also turning its gaze further north into Africa.
Many of those opportunities come as South African Airways (SAA), a franchise partner of Airlink, shrinks its network and cuts loss-making routes.
SAA required $800 million in government bailouts in 2017, and recently went cap in hand for a further $400-million to cover operational expenses.
Little wonder South Africa’s flag carrier is reducing or cancelling services to the likes of Brazzaville (Republic of Congo), Kinshasa (Democratic republic of Congo), Libreville (Gabon) and Luanda (Angola). But trouble for SAA means potential expansion for Airlink.
“Airlink sees certain of these routes as appropriate for the Airlink business given that we operate smaller regional aircraft more suited to thinner markets,” Airlink’s CEO Rodger Foster told Fin24 last year.
But Airlink’s growth hasn’t come without turbulence.
In February, 2018, the airline was referred to South Africa’s Competition Tribunal over claims it abused its dominant position on a domestic route, allegedly overcharging consumers in the region of $8 million and contributing to the collapse of a competing startup airline.
Airlink declined an interview for this article, but in a February statement Foster said the airline “has, and will continue to, cooperate fully and openly with South Africa’s competition authorities. We deny the allegations and welcome the opportunity to put our case before the Competition Tribunal.”
South Africa’s Competition Commission also put the brakes on Airlink’s planned acquisition of privately owned aviation company Safair, citing a potential reduction in competition and the risk of price hikes for consumers. Privately owned Safair operates intra-African charter and cargo flights, and in 2013 launched the regional low-cost carrier FlySafair.
In a statement, Airlink said it intends to appeal the ruling, and have the application reconsidered: “We firmly believe the proposed transaction will be beneficial, not only for the two companies, but for their customers, employees, suppliers, the local and regional air transport markets as well as the broader South African economy.”
While those battles are still to be fought behind boardroom doors, up at 35 000 feet Airlink continues to keep a few dozen far-flung corners of the continent connected. And for that, the miners, farmers and traveling business folks of southern Africa are grateful.