Why Doesn’t American Airlines Fly To Southern Africa?

American Airlines is a well-known carrier around the world. As the airline has charted its expansion over the last few years, the carrier has tried plenty of interesting routes in the past. One absence from the carrier’s global route network is Sub-Saharan Africa. So, why doesn’t American fly to Sub-Saharan Africa?

American Boeing 7777
American Airlines currently has no flights scheduled to Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

A look at Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is a massive region that stretches from Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and South Sudan down to Madagascar and South Africa. The region is expansive, and over a billion people are living in the area.

There is plenty of diversity in the region. This includes the hustle and bustle of major cities like Lagos and Johannesburg, the safaris of Tanzania, the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River, and much more.

SSA airports
A sampling of major airports in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rendering created at Great Circle Mapper

The region is home to many airlines and is a growing air traffic market. This includes Nigeria’s Air Peace, Kenya’s Kenya Airways, Ethiopia’s Ethiopian Airlines, and Angola’s TAAG Angola Airlines, among others.

The existing US to Sub-Saharan Africa flights

Delta Air Lines once planned massive African expansion to several countries in the region. However, the airline scaled that back, but it is still the largest US carrier flying to and from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Delta 767
Delta has historically been the largest US carrier flying to Africa. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Delta flies to Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa. United Airlines has plans to fly to Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa from this year, depending on market conditions.

Ethiopian Airlines also has a massive international route network, with plenty of flights to the US. This includes mostly flights operating from Ethiopia to the US with a stop in Lomé in Togo.

United has tried before to make Sub-Saharan Africa work, but the carrier has not had the success that Delta has. United is hoping now that its 787s will make the US to Africa routes work. Ethiopian also flies mostly 787s from Lomé. Delta flies a mixed bag of planes planned to fly to Africa, including Airbus A330s, Airbus A350s, and Boeing 767s.

Ethipian Airlines plane
Ethiopian Airlines is a massive force in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo: Boeing

Why American Airlines has not flown to Sub-Saharan Africa

Thinking down in southern Africa, the largest city with the most nonstop flights to the US, either scheduled or planned on a year-round basis, is Johannesburg, in South Africa. Delta already serves the city from Atlanta, and United plans to connect Johannesburg to Newark.

Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB) is categorized as a hot-and-high airport. The hot-and-high conditions affect aircraft performance.

Airlines have to manage their hot-and-high performance. To compensate for the increased engine power required and long takeoff run to safely get a plane in the air from a hot and high airport, carriers would need to manage their payload and restrict the aircraft’s weight.

The way an airline would reduce aircraft weight would be to limit the number of passengers it allows onboard, limit the amount of baggage passengers can bring with them, or cut the cargo they carry in the hold.

American 777-200ER
American’s Boeing 777-200ERs were a little too big and did not have the right performance for some destinations in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

An airline could operate a triangle route, which Delta Air Lines will be doing when it returns to South Africa with its Airbus A350s.

Aside from aircraft performance, South Africa is notably far away from the US. From the East Coast, a route to Johannesburg would traverse around 8,000 miles. While the 777-200ER could reach closer to 8,500 miles or more, it comes at a tradeoff of payload and a higher fuel carrying requirement.

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, the airline has also previously relied on its partner, British Airways, which has a pretty significant presence across Africa, including Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and more. So, American is still able to sell flights to Africa, just usually with a connection in London

American oneworld
American Airlines has traditionally leaned on its partners to service destinations in Africa. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

In addition, American also now has Qatar Airways, which has a massive African presence. The Qatar partnership gives American access to some secondary markets in sub-Saharan Africa, like Zanzibar.

South Africa could be back on the horizon

American Airlines is constantly evaluating its route network, including looking at opportunities to fly where passengers need to go and are willing to pay what American needs them to pay to make a route profitable.

An American Airlines spokesperson confirmed to Simple Flying that South Africa is on the airline’s radar, and the geography has some challenges. However, there is something that American has now that could make Africa routes viable: the Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliners

American Airlines has used its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners for its ultra-long-haul routes. According to Boeing’s latest data, American has a backlog of 25 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners. While some of these will replace older 777-200ERs, the airline did state it could look at deploying some of these aircraft on routes to South Africa.

AA 787-9
The Boeing 787-9 has the potential to unlock more destinations for American in Africa. Photo: Jay Singh | Simple Flying

The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner has better operating economics and fuel efficiency and can hop to and from South Africa with ease.

Also, American Airlines could use its upcoming Boeing 787-8s to service some northern Sub-Saharan African destinations. These planes are, again, more fuel-efficient than the Boeing 777-200ERs. In addition, these planes also seat fewer passengers than the 777-200ERs, which could make it easier for American to fill the planes heading to Africa.

Where could American fly?

The most likely destination American Airlines would seek to serve in Southern Africa would be Johannesburg. Using a Boeing 787-9, American could fly it to one of four hubs: Miami, Charlotte, New York-JFK, or Philadelphia.

American 787-9
American Airlines would likely connect an East Coast hub to South Africa. Photo: Getty Images

American Airlines previously did plan a flight to Casablanca, in Morocco, to a new oneworld partner, Royal Air Maroc’s, hub out of Philadelphia. So, if the airline wants to leverage its connecting network and consolidate African operations, Philadelphia to Johannesburg is a possibility.

New York-JFK to Johannesburg is not currently served, and the future of this route is up in the air as South African Airways figures out its restructuring. A 787-9 could work on this route, and, thanks to the new JetBlue partnership, this route could end up working out.

Using Boeing 787-8s, there are plenty of other options for American Airlines north of South Africa. One of the most likely options would be Lagos, Nigeria. There is a large diaspora of Nigerians in the US, and there are plenty of business ties between the two.

Depending on American’s Philadelphia to Africa strategy, a Philadelphia to Lagos route is conceivable. A JFK to Lagos flight could also work, but American will face competition from Delta on the route.

American 787-8
If American adds new flights to northern Sub-Saharan Africa, expect the 787-8 to fly some of them. Photo: Jay Singh – Simple Flying

Following Delta and United, a route to Accra, Ghana, is also conceivable, but the competition out of Accra would be high.

There are other options, like Nairobi or Kinshasa, that are major cities in Africa. Still, these cities are relatively low-yield travelers, so it is less likely American tries to operate to some of these cities. For example, Kenya Airways has not been pleased with the New York to Nairobi route it operates, and it does also sell connections onwards on limited American flights.

Ultimately, it is not inconceivable to think American Airlines could be flying to Sub-Saharan Africa in a few years. The airline has been on a growth path and, even in 2021, the carrier has some big plans with new routes. Once it has the planes, Sub-Saharan Africa could be a natural extension of the airline’s route network.

Do you think American Airlines should return to Sub-Saharan Africa? Let us know in the comments!