Singling out a region’s oldest airline can be difficult. With KLM, the undisputed oldest airline in the world, the task is easy as it has never changed its name, nor has it undergone any major transformations apart from the 2003 merger with Air France, which was done carefully to preserve the airline’s identity.
But most airlines do not have that luxury. They have been renamed, transformed, merged, separated, closed and reopened, until the line of succession becomes hard to follow. Many of the oldest African airlines are prime examples of this.
So, what is the oldest airline in Africa? Due to the turbulent history of the continent, there isn’t a straightforward answer.
The earliest air service in Africa was conducted in the early 20th century, on behalf of colonial governments, and was usually operated by European companies. It was only in the 1960s that newly independent African nations began creating their own airlines, some of which continue operating to this day.
But this picture – a common narrative, presented in many popular depictions of African history – is not entirely complete.
Let’s take a look at Egyptair. It was established in 1932, commenced operations in 1933, and continues flying to this day. However, its history is rather complex. Initially called Misr Airwork, it was renamed, reorganized and has changed hands several times. In 1949 the company was nationalized and renamed Misrair; in 1957, after Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic (UAR), the airline was merged with Syrian Airways and became United Arab Airlines, before being reformed again after the UAR’s collapse, and was finally renamed Egyptair in 1971.
A similar history of transformation can be found by taking a closer look at South African Airways (SAA), seemingly the second oldest African airline. It was established in 1934, but its history goes much deeper. Its establishment was a result of the South African government nationalizing Union Airways, a private airline which began in 1929. SAA inherited Union Airways’ assets, staff and network, mirroring the transition from Misr Airwork to Misrair.
So, can SAA be called the oldest African airline? There is at least one more candidate for this title, and its history goes even further.
In 1927 a company called the Rhodesian Aviation Syndicate was established in Bulawayo. The British colony of Southern Rhodesia had witnessed several attempts to establish an aerial service in the early 1920s, but these initiatives hadn’t been successful. Despite an impressive sounding name, Rhodesian Aviation Syndicate was a personal initiative with a single aircraft – an old Airco DH.6 – which flew chartered flights for several weeks before being damaged in a crash landing.
In subsequent years, the Syndicate acquired more aircraft, was renamed the Rhodesian Aviation Company, before becoming Rhodesian and Nyasaland Airways (RANA) in the 1930s. In 1946, RANA was consolidated with Southern Rhodesia Air Services and became Central African Airways (CAA).
When the British colonies served by CAA gained independence, the company was split between them. In the 1960s its assets and routes were distributed between Zambia Airways, Air Malawi and Air Rhodesia. Of these three, only Zambia Airways survived until the mid-1990s.
In December 2021, with the help of Ethiopian Airlines, Zambia Airways was resurrected. While its fragmented history means that it can’t legitimately lay claim to being the oldest African airline, its roots can be tracked back to 1927, pre-dating both Egyptair and SAA’s predecessor, Union Airways.
It’s also possible that there are more airlines in Africa with lineage traceable to colonial air services and small private companies in the 1920s. But would they qualify for the position of Africa’s oldest airline?
Whatever the case, the question of which airline is Africa’s oldest remains, for the most part, unanswered.