The African Aviation Market: An Overview

Africa is the continent with the smallest number of air passengers annually. It accounts for roughly 2% of global traffic, including both passenger and freight. Air travel is predominantly driven by international tourism. However, with the continent’s rapid growth population and income, further opportunities may arise. This is why learning more about the African market may prove valuable.

Air Tanzania has one of the most modern fleets in Africa, featuring both A220’s and B787s. Photo: Air Tanzania

Tourism is the key driver

South Africa is a leader in terms of air passengers carried, with 25 million in 2018. Egypt closely follows it with almost 24 million and Morocco with 19 million. The gap between the three biggest markets and the rest of the countries is significant.

The fourth-largest country by passenger numbers is Algeria, with 10 million passengers. Other countries in the top ten include Tunisia, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Mauritius.

There is a clear factor driving air travel to/from Africa. And that factor is tourism. Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, and Tunisia have the most tourists from all countries on the continent. Not by accident, the same countries are the four with the highest passenger numbers.

Based on these numbers, it might come as a slight surprise that the airline with the highest market share is Ethiopian airlines (8.4%). However, it is followed by EgyptAir, Royal Air Maroc, South African Airways, and Air Algeria, which is perfectly in line with what one may expect based on both the air passenger and tourism numbers.

ethiopian 777
Ethiopian Airlines has the highest seat capacity in Africa. Photo: Boeing

The most popular international route from/to Africa is from Cairo to Jeddah, which is not surprising, given its proximity. 1.6 million passengers traveled between these cities in 2018. The next three most popular international routes are also from Cairo and connect the Egyptian capital with middle eastern hubs of Riyadh, Kuwait, and Dubai. However, the traffic is significantly smaller than to Jeddah and ranges from 934,000 to Riadh and 795,000 to Dubai.

The most popular routes to Europe are all between the Northern African countries and France. The likely reason for the popularity of these connections from countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia is the African diaspora and their families in France.

Top intra-African airport international pairs are of the Zimbabwean capital of Harare and Johannesburg. Almost half a million passengers travel between these two cities annually.

South African Airways SAA A340
The most popular domestic route within Africa connects Cape Town and Johannesburg. Photo Getty Images

The route with most passengers that takes off from the African soil is a domestic one. It connects two South African cities of Cape Town and Johanessburg. Roughly 3.5 million passengers commute between those two cities annually. That is almost ten thousand passengers daily and twice more than the most popular international route.

A challenging environment

Low passenger numbers could hint towards a challenging environment for the industry on that continent. However, over the last years, which were some of the most productive ones in the history of aviation, African airlines did not profit. In fact, they lost money. On average, an African carrier loses $1.09 per passenger. The situation is only worse in Latin America, where the airlines lose $1.65 on average.

Altogether, this simple statistic provides an excellent explanation as to why have so many African airlines faced bankruptcy so rapidly following the outbreak of the pandemic. Such unprofitability persists despite a low penetration of the low-cost carriers (LCCs). They accounted for only 12% of seat capacity within Africa in 2018, according to CAPA and OAG data. However, that is caused by some structural challenges within the industry.

What are your thoughts about the African aviation market? Will you be flying with any airlines from the continent soon? Let us know hat you think in the comment section.