Delta Once Planned A Massive African Expansion – What Happened?

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Over a decade ago, Delta Air Lines planned a massive African expansion. The airline planned eight new routes to Africa, of which only a few remain in operation. A combination of factors worked against Delta. Unfortunately, that led to the suspension of several of the routes. Here’s a look back at the expansion and what happened to it.

Delta Airbus A330
Delta Air Lines had planned a massive Africa expansion for 2009. Many of those routes are no longer in operation. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | JFKJets.com

Summer 2009 was going to be big for Delta

In 2008, Delta announced a massive summer expansion. The airline was adding the following points to its route network:

  • Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) from Atlanta daily
  • Nairobi, Kenya (NBO) from Atlanta four times per week
  • Monrovia, Liberia (ROB) from Atlanta once per week
  • Abuja, Nigeria (ABV) from Atlanta twice per week
  • Luanda, Angola (LAD) from Atlanta twice per week
  • Malabo, Equatorial Guinea (SSG) from Atlanta once per week
  • Cape Town, South Africa (CPT) from Atlanta thrice per week
  • Lagos, Nigeria (LOS) from New York-JFK four to five times per week

Delta planned to fly a Boeing 777-200LR to Johannesburg, a 767-300ER to Lagos, Cape Town, and Nairobi. Finally, the airline planned to fly Boeing 757-200ERs to Monrovia, Abuja, Luanda, and Malabo.

Delta 777
The Boeing 777-200LR enabled Delta to fly from Atlanta to Johannesburg nonstop. Photo: Getty Images

Glen Hauenstein, then executive vice president of Network Planning and Revenue Management, stated the following in a press release viewed by Simple Flying:

“Traffic between the United States and Africa is projected to grow more than 5 percent annually through 2027. With demand for travel to Africa spread across the United States, Delta is uniquely positioned to collect this growing base of traffic through the world’s largest passenger hub in Atlanta, as well as via the top U.S. market in New York to fly customers direct to 12 of Africa’s top destinations.”

Delta now prefers to route passengers via a partner hub, but in 2009, it was planning a massive nonstop expansion. Photo: Getty Images

Astute aviation enthusiasts and professionals will note a few things. First, flying 767-300ERs from Atlanta to Lagos, Nairobi, and Cape Town would mean stringent load restrictions, as would 757s to Monrovia, and 757s would not be able to fly to Luanda from Atlanta.

So, how did Delta plan to do this?

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Notice the routing

Take a look at the routing for how Delta planned to operate these flights:

Four of the flights stopped in Cape Verde. Rendering created at Great Circle Mapper
Atlanta to Johannesburg nonstop service replaced Delta’s one-stop service in Dakar, and Delta added two more routes with a stop in Dakar. Rendering created at Great Circle Mapper

The only nonstop routes Delta had planned were from New York to Lagos and Atlanta to Johannesburg. Every other flight to Africa required a stop, either in Senegal or Cape Verde. This is how Delta planned to fly a Boeing 757 to Angola.

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The Boeing 767 is useful for many operations, but it cannot quite fly nonstop from Atlanta to Cape Town. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | JFKJets.com

What happened to these routes?

Seeing a route map like this and attributing it to Delta Air Lines can be jarring for a noted conservative airline with long-haul international growth. However, in 2008, Delta was on a growth expansion and even plotted out more flights from Tokyo, including to New York-JFK, Salt Lake City, and Ho Chi Minh City in the aftermath of its merger with Northwest Airlines.

Of these routes, Delta has preserved nonstop service to Johannesburg from Atlanta and Lagos from New York. Flights to Cape Town will resume, albeit with a stop in Johannesburg since Delta retired the only aircraft in its fleet capable of flying nonstop from Johannesburg back to Atlanta.

The Airbus A350 will be flying to South Africa. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | JFKJets.com

2008 also marked a financial crisis that had a lingering effect on airlines. In the first quarter of 2009, Delta had a net loss of $693 million and an annual net loss of $1.2 billion in 2009.

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Many of these operations, such as Liberia, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola, are more niche routes that would require a stronger demand environment than Delta had to work with. The ongoing financial crisis meant that a lot fewer people were spending money on travel, and Delta was not able to command the revenue premium it had hoped for.

At the time, the revenue environment was as such, with no other nonstop service to Africa on a US carrier, that Delta saw an opportunity to add more flights to Africa. At the time, there was also not the concern that Delta would be missing out on a more profitable set of long-haul international routes.

Africa is a difficult market to serve from the US. The 767 and 757 are the perfect size based on demand and market requirements, but the planes cannot fly nonstop from most points in the US to Africa. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | JFKJets.com

Nonstop routes are usually much more popular than one-stop itineraries. The stops in Cape Verde and Senegal do not necessarily shorten the flight time, nor was Delta picking up passengers in either location to transport onwards.

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A passenger flying from, say, Chicago to Nairobi had the option would fly from Chicago to Atlanta to Dakar to Nairobi on Delta, or else consider an option from, say, Chicago to Europe and then onwards to Nairobi. There was no real competitive advantage that Delta offered with these routes, especially considering the alternatives.

Today, Delta is not flying to Liberia, Kenya, Angola, or Equatorial Guinea, nor is it flying to Abuja. Instead, Delta passengers will need to connect in Europe on either Air France or KLM to fly to these destinations.

Did you get to fly any of these Africa routes on Delta? Do you wish Delta operated some of these routes still? Let us know in the comments!

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