What Effect Could Coronavirus Pandemic Have On African Aviation?

The global aviation industry worldwide is sagging under the weight of the current coronavirus pandemic, and Africa is no exception. With strong links to China, both for tourism and trade, African airlines are somewhat more exposed to the current disruption than you might think.

Kenya Airways 777
Africa’s ties to China could expose airlines more than we think. Photo: Getty

Disruption in African aviation

Back at the start of March, the New York Times reported that disruption from coronavirus could cost African airlines some $40m in revenue. That was based on an estimated issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which, at the end of February, had estimated losses to be in the region of $29bn globally.

However, IATA has recently revised its figures, as the virus has continued to spread and the impacts are felt more widely. The most recent estimation shows potential revenue losses of some $113bn worldwide due to COVID-19.

Based on the impacts SARS had on aviation, IATA now predicts Africa will lose 0.4% of its revenue passenger kilometers (RPK), if the disease is contained within the most affected nations. If the disease is more widespread, the effect could be worst, although IATA didn’t put a monetary value on the losses.

China africa tourism
Chinese trade and tourism is a big deal to Africa’s airlines, and its countries. Photo: Getty

Regardless of the statistics, there’s a big reason that African aviation will suffer greatly from the coronavirus, and that’s its connections with China.

Why will African aviation suffer?

Many African airlines are highly reliant on the Far East for a number of things. Chinese investors have plowed money into African aviation infrastructure, and have made finance options available to airlines for everything from aircraft purchasing to route expansion. Strong Sino-African trade has led several African airlines to start operating flights to China, which has left them exposed to the impact of the coronavirus.

Overall, intercontinental flights are still the bread and butter of Africa’s aviation industry, making up 51% of their business. On average, the revenue of airlines in Africa derive 5% from Chinese flights and another 7% from flights to the Asia-Pacific region. As such, airlines are highly exposed to both the cancellation of these routes, and the drop in demand.

Kenya Airways and RwandAir have both suspended flights to and from China until further notice, as has neighboring Air Tanzania. However, one airline is still flying, and that’s Ethiopian, which has been widely criticized for not dropping the routes temporarily.

Despite maintaining the routes, Ethiopian has been suffering just as any other airline has due to the general drop in demand for travel. CEO of the airline, Tewolde GebbreMariam, told Reuters,

“The air travel demand for Ethiopian Airlines has declined by 20% due to the corona … It is a big shock.”

Egyptair coronavirus
All corners of the nation have been feeling the effects of the outbreak. Photo: Getty

Of course, it’s not just the Chinese routes that are in jeopardy. Some airlines also fly to other badly hit areas, and as such have had to cancel flights. Kenya Airways, for example, ceased its direct flights to the Northern Italian cities of Verona and Milan

Abderahmane Berthe, secretary-general of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA), told a media briefing in Nairobi that the suspension of China routes was already negatively affecting the revenue of some airlines, while the overall demand for international travel has been significantly reduced.

In his opinion, he said, airlines should redeploy their aircraft onto inter-African routes not affected by the pandemic. However, that’s reliant on no African countries having a widespread outbreak.

Is Africa suffering from COVID-19?

One of the major factors affecting Africa, aside of its Far East connections, will be the prevalence of the disease in its own nations. As we’ve seen with other outbreak epicenters, a high penetration of confirmed cases could lead other countries to shut their borders to African carriers.

According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 100 cases confirmed in 11 countries in Africa, as of yesterday. The worst hit countries are Egypt with 59, Algeria with 20 and South Africa with seven. Other nations with cases include Senegal, Togo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, DRC, Tunisia and Morocco.

While these numbers are very low compared to other places around the world, African has to be careful. Many of its countries do not have the resources to provide adequate healthcare in the event of a mass outbreak, so many nations are resorting to driving home the message of good hygiene to their people.

CNN reports that, as well as the handwashing stations in Kigali, Rwanda, other nations are getting prepared for the worst. Kenya has no cases yet, but has already opened a 120-bed quarantine center in Nairobi. In Lagos, Nigeria, people are being screened and made to use hand sanitizer before entering public spaces like banks or restaurants. Health officials in Nigeria have said that their experience with Ebola in 2014 has helped them to prepare.

Whether or not Africa experiences an outbreak on the scale that places like Europe and Asia are suffering remains to be seen. For its airlines, severe cost-cutting measures need to be implemented fast if they are to survive the downturn in traffic and the loss of their most lucrative routes.