INTO AFRICAN SKIES
By Joe Brancatelli
July 7, 2010 -- Need to fly on business to Africa? The trouble-free World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa convince you that it's time to plan an African vacation? Well, you can't get there from here.
Astonishing for an industry that has universal pretensions, U.S. airlines simply haven't cared much about Africa in the last generation. Without spending too much time in the past, let's just say that Pan Am was the last American airline with a substantial Africa network. And it dropped most of its Africa service long before it collapsed in 1991.
Among U.S. carriers today, only Delta and United Airlines even fly to the continent with their own aircraft. And United's sole African foray, from its hub at Washington's Dulles Airport to Accra, Ghana, has been operating for less than a month.
Without a stable core of Africa-based carriers to pick up the nonstop slack, U.S. business travelers headed to the continent usually end up changing planes in Europe, making a connection over London (on British Airways), Paris (on Air France), Amsterdam (on KLM), or with the German airline Lufthansa. Also emerging as an option: The three fast-growing Gulf carriers (Emirates, Qatar, and Etihad) offer good connections to many Africa destinations through their respective hubs in Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi.
"Traveling through Europe to Africa means you spend two nights sleeping on airplanes," explains Linda Hightower, who's logged 20 years on the road as a high-tech executive for several global companies. And she knows African travel as few Americans do. She's been based near Cape Town, South Africa since 2008, and she's been flying to, from, and around Africa for six years.
"Flying to Africa is hard enough without adding an extra day to your travel because the airlines won't fly nonstop," Hightower says. "Getting to Africa is unlike anything else I've ever experienced. You have to have a siege mentality."
U.S. airlines haven't served Africa in recent years for the same reason U.S. corporations have been reluctant to do business there. It's complicated, since post-Colonial Africa has been slow to develop the governmental institutions that respect private enterprise. It's expensive, since infrastructure is iffy, financing is dodgy, and many basic manufactured goods need to be imported. It's dangerous, with tribal factions, tinpot strongmen, and many flavors of insurgencies fighting for control and influence. And while Americans tend to say "Africa" as if it is one market, it is actually a vast continent with a panoply of regional differences and an undefined consumer culture.
Still, the game is changing. Although mostly out of view of the American business community and media outlets, African economies are growing rapidly. It is rich in natural resources, many African nations have embarked on massive infrastructure and building projects, and the continent's consumer markets are growing. China has descended on the continent and struck creative (if one-sided) deals to help development. Africa is coming out of recession faster than Europe or the United States. And while it currently represents only about 5 percent of the global passenger market, Africa's passenger counts are growing faster than almost anywhere else.
In other words, it's not your grandfather's Africa, and at least one U.S. airline has noticed.
"If you look at the economics, there's a lot of business travel to Africa now," Delta Air Lines vice president Bob Cortelyou told me last year. "Minerals, oil, infrastructure; they are all compelling reasons to go. And as we saw the traffic fatten, we thought there was an opportunity."
To go along with its global expansion elsewhere, Delta planned a massive jump in nonstop flights to Africa from its hubs in Atlanta and New York's Kennedy Airport. Although its first flights to Africa didn't launch until December, 2006, Delta announced a huge tranche of new flights meant to begin last year. There would be new service to places like Luanda, Angola; Malabo, Equatorial Guinea; Abuja, Nigeria; Nairobi, Kenya; and Monrovia, Liberia. The service would have buttressed Delta's nascent Africa network, which already included flights to Johannesburg, South Africa; Dakar, Senegal; Accra, Ghana; Lagos, Nigeria; and Cairo.
"Every country has a different mix of traffic," Cortelyou said at the time. "It isn't one size fits all. There are a few more challenges than flying elsewhere, but the reward outweighs the risk."
But the Delta expansion never happened. Only the flights to Abuja started. Much to everyone's shock—including Delta itself—the U.S. Transportation Security Administration refused to give the airline permission to fly to the other places. No one even knew the TSA had the legal right to block service, and its authority in this area has never been tested.
"Delta really got screwed," said an executive who works at another U.S. airline. "To call it a TSA overreach is an understatement. When you start telling us where we can't fly, it's like telling us to give our customers to the competition."
But since no carrier argues publicly with the TSA, Delta meekly "delayed" its plans. And one of the carrier's public relations executives went out of his way last week to call the TSA "a great partner" when he told me that Delta hopes to finally launch service to Monrovia in September.
The gap in the U.S. carriers' route maps creates opportunities for the European carriers to grab traffic and make it nearly impossible for the U.S. airlines to launch competitive nonstop service into Africa.
Take Lufthansa, for example. While Air France tends to carry U.S. travelers to former French colonies and British Airways is strongest to former British colonies, Lufthansa has pursued an Africa-wide strategy. Via Frankfurt and Munich, it operates 104 flights a week to 16 destinations in Africa. But its subsidiaries, including Swiss International, Brussels, Austrian, and BMI, operate 118 more. That makes a total of 222 weekly flights to 33 cities in Africa.
The result? Year-over-year demand from U.S. travelers using Lufthansa service to Africa has jumped 25 percent. Even if you attribute 10 to 12 percent of that growth to the recovering economy, a Lufthansa spokesperson says, that means fundamental demand is growing by as much as 13 percent.
And even Africa-based airlines are growing. Now part of the Star Alliance, South African Airways is trusted by U.S. travelers. Ethiopian Airlines also flies to the United States, as does Royal Air Maroc of Morocco and Egyptair. And a new airline, Arik Air, now flies three times weekly to Lagos, Nigeria, from New York.
Arik Air is privately owned and is emerging as Nigeria's de facto flag carrier. Its equipment is new—Airbus A340-500s equipped with lie-flat beds in business class and coach seats with an extremely generous 37 inches of legroom—and Arik can draw on the large market of ethnic Nigerians living in the United States as well as business travelers.
About 60 percent of Arik's U.S.-originating passengers are headed to Lagos, but others go onward to Port Harcourt, the center of Nigeria's oil community, or Abuja, the capital. They also connect to other places that Arik flies, including Ghana, the Gambia, Benin, and Sierra Leone.
"We already dominate the domestic Nigeria market with about 40 percent market share," explains Bob Brunner, executive vice president of North America for Arik. "We want to be the airline of West Africa."
The Fine Print…
Hightower, the U.S. expat now working from Cape Town, has two tips for newbie business travelers to Africa. "Pack fault tolerant," she says. "There's a high risk of loss or pilferage of checked bags." Also, "make sure you have confirmed reservations for onward connections. Even if you have paid for your tickets, carriers in Africa often require you to reconfirm your reservations three days before departure. If you don't reconfirm, they'll cancel."
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.