This article was originally published on January 31, 2022.

Africa’s aviation sector is building up momentum in the wake of improvements, reformations and restructurings across the continent and its air services. While Africa accounts for 17% of the world’s population, the continent’s air service activity holds a share of about 2% of the global air service market.  

Global crises have long been the catalyst for changes to air travel. During periods such as the 1985 Gulf crisis, the 2009 financial crisis, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, passenger travel either stalled or declined. However, these events were followed by increased passenger traffic and volume.  

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa's aviation sector was notorious for its fragmented nature, which made free travel within the continent troublesome. However, as global air travel begins to recover, what is the sector’s trajectory? And will the continent’s passenger traffic flows and fleet capacity eventually hold a greater share in the global market?   

Here is AeroTime’s roadmap to understanding aviation in Africa today.   

Domestic and International Passenger Traffic  

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, global air travel has continued to make a steady recovery from the sharp decline experienced in 2020 and despite disruptions caused by the surge in Omicron cases. 

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), demand for air travel globally, measured in revenue passenger kilometers (RPK), increased to 41.6% of 2019 levels, an improvement from the 34.2% recorded for 2020. The load factor, a measure of how full planes are, stood at 67.2%, down 15.4 percentage points compared to pre-crisis levels. 

In Africa in 2021, overall air travel demand reached just 37.2% of 2019 levels, while the load factor was just 59.5%, both measures therefore performing worse than the global average. 

However, in terms of international traffic, Africa actually performed better than the global average - demand for international travel measured in RPKs was down 65% compared to 2019, while the global figure was down 75.5%. However, it should be noted that Africa only accounted for 1.5% of international air travel demand in 2021, according to the IATA data. 

If we look at December, on the other hand, IATA says Africa was the only region where international RPKs weakened in that month due to the impact of travel bans to and from several African countries after the emergence of the Omicron variant. Otherwise, all other regions of the world saw improvement in RPKs for December, boosted by people visiting friends and family over the Christmas and New Year travel period. 

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) also provides a snapshot of how Africa is performing, but in terms of passenger numbers. 

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According to ICAO data, Africa saw 74 million international passengers in 2021, which gives it a 6% share of the global market, up from 4% in 2019. This correlates with the IATA data that the international air travel market in Africa, while small, has held up better than elsewhere in the world.  

Like other regions across the world, domestic traffic in Africa has recovered faster than international traffic over the course of the pandemic. 

According to ICAO, international passenger numbers in the Africa region dropped 59.5%, compared with 2019 figures, to 30 million passengers in 2021. In 2019, international passengers were 74 million, before dropping to 21 million in 2020.  

Domestic numbers were down a smaller 39.6%, versus 2019 figures, to 24 million in 2021. The number of domestic passengers stood at 41 million in 2019 and fell to 15 million in 2020.  

That means that domestic travel now accounts for a larger share of travel on the continent than before the pandemic. In 2019, domestic travel accounted for 36% of passenger traffic in the African region. In 2020, it rose to 42% and in 2021 it accounted for a 45% share of traffic, according to the ICAO data. 

The pandemic has also seen intra-regional travel - travel on routes within the continent - recover faster than inter-regional routes - ones to outside of the continent.  Inter-regional traffic accounted for a 61% share of passenger traffic in 2021, down from a 66% share in 2019. Meanwhile, the share of intra-regional traffic - ones within the continent of Africa - increased correspondingly to 39% from 34%.    

For 2022, ICAO predicts international passenger traffic in Africa will continue to recover although it will still be some way off pre-pandemic levels. It expects passenger numbers to be down by between 37.5% and 32.0% compared with 2019. Domestic traffic is expected to fall by between 21.5% and 17.0% compared with 2019. 

Fleet Orders and Deliveries 

As new airlines and flag carriers emerge in Africa, fleet orders and deliveries across the sector indicate a strong focus from airlines to bolster the continent’s regional fleet capacities. 

Plane manufacturers Airbus and Boeing estimate that more than 1,000 new aircraft will be required to meet travel demand in Africa by 2040. According to Boeing’s forecast, which was released in October 2021, the continent will operate a fleet of more than 1500 aircraft by that time.  

Over the past three years, there has been an increase in deliveries and orders of short-haul narrow-body jets. A large share of this increased fleet capacity has been recorded in West and Central Africa. 

West Africa & Central Africa 

At the Dubai Airshow in November 2021, Dakar-based Air Senegal announced that it would lease five A220-300s through Australia-based Macquarie AirFinance. Initially, the carrier made a firm order of eight A220-300s in January 2020, however, it opted to choose the leasing route to deploy its A220 fleet on routes from Dakar from 2023. 

Nigeria-based Ibom Air signed an agreement with Airbus in November 2021, to acquire 10 Airbus A220 aircraft. Ibom launched in 2019 and operates five Bombardier CRJ900 aircraft. The airline became an A220 operator in July 2021 after wet-leasing two A220s from EgyptAir. 

Lagos-based Overland Airways plans to expand its regional fleet capacity after firming an order for three Embraer 175 jets with purchase rights for three more in November 2021. Value at USD 299,4 million, the aircraft will be delivered to the operator from 2023 onwards, adding to its fleet of ATR 42, ATR 72 and Beech 1900D turboprops. 

Air Peace took delivery of two Airbus A320 aircraft in January 2022, leased from EU-based ACMI charter and cargo operator, SmartLynx Airlines. In April 2019, the airline placed a firm order for 10 Embraer E195-E2s, which was later increased to 13 aircraft with purchase rights for an additional 17 units. Air Peace became the first E2 operator in Africa after receiving the first of its E2s in the second quarter of 2020. The airline announced that it will receive all 13 aircraft on firm order by the end of 2022. Additionally, the 737 operator has 10 Boeing MAXs on order.  

Established in 2015, Nigerian start-up airline Green Africa Airways currently boasts the largest aircraft order on the continent following its 2020 announcement that it was interested in adding 50 Airbus A220-300s to its fleet while having provisionally signed for up to 100 Boeing 737 MAXs in 2019. Delivery dates for these aircraft have not yet been confirmed. 

At the Dubai Airshow in November 2021, Gabon-based Afrijet ordered three ATR 72-600s to substitute its ageing fleet of ATR 72-600s. 

In January 2021, Congo Airways, the flag carrier of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, placed a firm order for two Embraer E195-E2 regional jets, which are expected to be delivered in 2022. The agreement follows a previous order and delivery of two smaller E190-E2s delivered in Q4 2020.  

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East, North and South Africa 

At the Dubai Airshow in November 2021, Dar es Salaam-based airline Air Tanzania firmed an order with Boeing to add capacity to its cargo operations as well as its short and long-haul operations. The airline announced that it would add two Boeing 737 MAXs to its fleet, as well as one Boeing 787-8 and one 767-300 freighter. 

In April 2021, Egypt-based Air Cairo took delivery of the first of two Airbus A320neos joining the airline’s all-Airbus fleet. The new A320 fleet was deployed on the airline’s regional and international network to serve destinations across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. 

EgyptAir became the first airline in Africa and the Middle East to operate both of Airbus’s A320neo and A220 aircraft in its fleet. The airline took delivery of its first A320neo in February 2020, leased through AerCap following its announcement in 2017. The agreement included eight A320neos and seven of the larger A321neos. The carrier operates eight Airbus A220 aircraft in its EgyptAir Express division. 

In November 2019, the Ghanaian government revealed an interest in adding three Boeing 787-9s and six De Havilland Dash 8-400s to its new flag carrier. In October 2020, EgyptAir signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to help relaunch the state carrier. Pressure is mounting as local firms have revealed their interest in partnering with the government to relaunch the airline. 

From a firm order of two Airbus A330-800, Entebbe-based Uganda Airlines took delivery of its first A330-800 in December 2020, and the second in February 2021. The added capacity bolsters the airline’s ambition to expand its long-haul operations. 

In January 2022, Ethiopian Airlines (EA) revealed its interest in adding five Boeing 777 freighters and additional Airbus SE A350s as the airline looks to ramp up its cargo operations. The airline's ambition to become the leading aviation group on the continent is backed by a fleet of 131 aircraft. For its regional and domestic operations, EA operates Boeing’s 737-800, 737-700NG and Bombardier’s Q400. In February 2022, the airline will operate over 60 aircraft on its domestic and regional routes with the return of its B737 MAX 8 fleet. Ethiopian Airlines has firm orders for 25 Boeing 737 MAXs, one Boeing B737-800SF and two Bombardier Q400. 

Regulatory and Policy 

To date, 34 countries have signed up to the African Union’s Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) These are Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea (Bissau), Guinée, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Swaziland, Tchad, Togo, Zimbabwe. 

Combined, these countries represent more than 80% of the existing aviation market in Africa.  

A majority of African airline fleet orders and deliveries coincide with states signed onto the SAATM, hinting towards increased regional capacity for intra-Africa traffic flows and air service competition between these states. 

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