PARIS - As South Africa’s coronavirus caseload hit the 300,000 mark this week, South African Airways got some good news: a reported government financial commitment to bail out the struggling state carrier, whose flights have been grounded because of the coronavirus since March.
Other African airlines are also getting a COVID-19 reprieve, resuming service as borders and airspace slowly reopen — despite fears the pandemic has yet to peak in Africa and may resurge elsewhere.
But the overall air transport landscape is grim. If the coronavirus has hit the global airline industry hard, it has dealt an outsized and potentially fatal blow to a number of African companies.
"Many African airlines were already in trouble before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the continent,” said Alex Vines, Africa program director for London-based research group Chatham House. “And obviously COVID has made things worse for them.”
Massive, widespread losses
Experts predict the fallout will translate into billions of dollars and millions of jobs lost across Africa — also affecting industries ranging from tourism to African roses and string beans exported to foreign markets.
The impact goes beyond business, affecting long-standing ambitions for closer regional trade and political ties on a continent where travel — both among and within countries — has long been a major obstacle.
“From my viewpoint, there won’t be many companies that will be able to emerge from this crisis,” Cheikh Tidiane Camara, the former European director for defunct pan-African airline Air Afrique, told Radio France International, adding: “It will necessarily generate a recomposition of the African airspace.”
Small, large companies affected
Those reeling are small companies like Air Zimbabwe, a single-plane carrier that's $300 million in debt, The Associated Press reported. But major airlines are also hurting, including Kenya Airways, Royal Air Maroc and Lome-based regional carrier ASKY Airlines, whose fleet of nine aircraft is still grounded.
In April, the International Air Transport Association warned African airlines could lose $6 billion in revenue this year, along with about 3 million aviation and related jobs continentwide. The African Airlines Association offered an even darker assessment of $8 billion in losses.
Even industry star Ethiopian Airlines is hurting, reporting revenue losses of up to $550 million between January and April.
For its part, South African Airways' financial reprieve could be short-lived, some believe. The company, which filed for bankruptcy protection last December, hasn’t made a profit since 2011.
"Airlines that were struggling before the pandemic will likely end up filing for bankruptcy or seek bailouts," the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa warned, according to an Associated Press report.
A number of these airlines have tried to fill critical local but also regional transport holes. Twelve-year-old ASKY, for example, founded at the initiative of West African governments, operates across several West and Central African countries.
An ASKY flight from Dakar to Abuja might take much of the day and involve at least one change, but the service has amounted to a sea change.
“It has always been a big problem having to travel across the continent,” said Vines of Chatham House. “It has sometimes been more efficient to cross the Sahel to Europe and fly back down than to wait for an unpredictable flight that crosses the continent.”
COVID-19's impact on regional air carriers and hubs may also affect African ambitions for a massive $3.4 billion continental free-trade zone, he said, intended to link the continent’s 1.3 billion people.
“It was moving forward as an African ambition,” Vines said. “COVID has significantly slowed it down.”
Africa's transport dilemma — and efforts to overcome it — is decades old.
It brought 11 newly independent West and Central African nations together in 1961 to form Air Afrique. The goal was a pan-African carrier, standing as a symbol of African sovereignty and unity.
It went bankrupt in 2002 after years of decline, brought down by reported mismanagement and corruption, along with a post-9/11 decline in the airline industry.
Still, Air Afrique’s goal has not been buried. Today, travelers face many more options than just a decade or two ago, although some airlines are still dogged by safety concerns. Besides regional company ASKY, a number of other mostly national carriers, including Ethiopian, Kenyan and Royal Air Maroc, connect major capitals. Air Senegal, Air Cote d’Ivoire and RwandAir have been born or revamped.
Alongside traditional international carriers like Air France and Brussels Airlines, others are nosing in, including Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways.
Now, with borders opening back up, a growing number of African carriers are resuming service.
Senegal opened its airspace this week, welcoming its first international flights. Its national carrier hopes to resume weekly flights to Paris, Marseille and Barcelona in August and — despite heavy financial losses — launch new routes to London, Geneva and eventually the U.S.
Ethiopian, Kenyan and Moroccan carriers count among others taking off since July or earlier, along with those from Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania and Zambia.
More virus cases
How long they will keep flying, however, is uncertain. Coronavirus cases are ticking rapidly upward in Africa, with health officials braced for worse to come.
Other regions, including Europe and the United States, fear or are experiencing a resurgence of the virus, potentially reshuttering borders and impacting international travel.
“We may see very limited reopening for humanitarian and business reasons and then closing again,” analyst Vines said. ”And I think that a number of African airlines will perish through this.”
The fallout, Vines said, could mean passengers crossing Africa may again be traveling to Paris, London and Doha for onward connections. But along with a more competitive business model, it could also open opportunities for surviving carriers to grab greater market share.
"I think a well-run, effective airline can prosper in Africa," he said. "And I think that’s what the post-COVID learning will be."