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Air Afrique Resumes Some Flights, but Still Faces Challenges - 2001-11-01

The beleaguered West African airline Air Afrique says it is resuming some flights, after pilots ended a 10-day strike over unpaid salaries. However, there remain significant challenges for Air Afrique, which still faces crushing debts and the threat of bankruptcy.

Air Afrique reached an agreement with the pilots' union. However, cabin crewmembers remain on strike and are expected to continue negotiating with management over three months of unpaid salaries.

The work stoppage is yet another setback, as management tries to rescue the multi-national airline from insolvency. Air Afrique, jointly owned by 11 West African States, French airline Air France, the French Development Agency and private investors, is crumbling under a debt estimated at $460 million.

The company is in such dire straits that analysts say the strike will make little difference, as Air Afrique may soon have no choice but to declare bankruptcy and implement a re-organization.

The airline's possible demise is a bitter pill to swallow for African political and business leaders. Businessmen say it is very difficult to travel from one West African state to another because of poor infrastructure and limited airline choices. For instance, a person wanting to travel from Chad to Ivory Coast must sometimes first fly to Paris to get a plane to Abidjan.

The situation is especially difficult for poor, landlocked West African states such as Chad, Niger or Burkina Faso, countries for which Air Afrique was one the few reliable connections to the outside world. Air Afrique, created 40 years ago following decolonization, long symbolized the promise of West African economic development and regional integration.

Some blame Air Afrique's financial woes on Air France, accusing it of running the company out of business to gain supremacy in the West African markets. Others say the shareholding countries contributed to poor management by supporting boards of directors that often bowed to political pressure.

Now, Air Afrique personnel and customers are wondering how much worse things will get before they improve. Air France has let it be known that it may have to lay off almost half the company's 4,200 employees.