Africa needs to improve its aviation infrastructure

ariplane-taking-off.jpgThe state of commercial aviation infrastructure in Africa varies greatly from region to region and from country to country. Southern Africa is on the fore front of the other African countries when it comes to their airports, regulations and air traffic management. There is also a good local aviation industry. North Africa is well established. East Africa is emerging strongly. The other regions (although not all the countries in them) currently lag behind. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s no room for improvement.

To have effective commercial aviation sectors, these African countries must have the proper infrastructure. Addressing these challenges could significantly unlock the industry’s potential for future growth.

This is one of the challenges facing the development of commercial aviation on the continent. “Infrastructure in commercial aviation is a three-legged stool -airlines, airports and air traffic management - with a good regulatory system on top,” explains Boeing International VP for Africa Miguel Santos. “All need to be good in order to have a good commercial aviation environment,” he added.

Challenges to the African aviation industry
The rapid expansion in Africa’s aviation industry is hampered by a number of factors. Poor record of safety and security, investment in education, lack of adequate resources and infrastructure, distance and limited connectivity, lack of regulation and government actions are among the main constraints the industry is facing. These constraints add to competition and high operating costs resulting from surging oil prices.

Safety and security challenges
Safety is the most pressing challenge facing the aviation industry in Africa. A few years back, the average number of air traffic accidents was nine times higher than the global average. The frequency of accidents stems largely from inconsistency in the implementation and enforcement of internationally accepted safety standards and practices. Increasing the level of safety should be a key priority for the development of the African aviation industry. The African authorities have endorsed an African Union backed plan aimed at addressing deficiencies related to aviation safety and security and strengthening the regulatory framework. Accordingly, the International Air Transport Association jointly with the International Civil Aviation Organization and other organizations have committed to supporting the Africa Strategic Improvement Action Plan of the African Union. The plan encourages African governments to foster regulatory oversight through the adoption of globally accepted safety and security standards.

Inadequate infrastructure
The air transport industry faces various challenges including poor airport infrastructures, lack of physical and human resources, limited connectivity, and lack of transit facilities. Although substantial progress has been made during the past decade, Africa still lags behind other regions in terms of maintaining standards such as law enforcement, emergency services and education. And physical facilities and installations needed to operate, manage and monitor a system with the intention that the structures are permanent. For example, when power lines or communication towers are built, the goal is for them to stay in place indefinitely.

Lack of regulation and government actions
Despite the growing awareness of the role that the aviation industry could play in the development of the continent, the industry is still not the top priority of African governments. More, despite increased understanding of the African aviation industry and the growing presence of foreign companies, some African governments are still unwilling to open their skies fearing foreign competition could undercut national airlines, some of which are short of commercial viability besides being just symbols of sovereignty. These challenges require governments to enhance regulation of management, consumer protection and safety of airlines. Lack of aviation experts and skills, high airport taxes and fees, the weak connectivity and restrictions on transit visas and facilities add to the menu of impediments affecting Africa’s aviation industry.

Opportunities for the African aviation industry
Air travel is essential to the prosperity of Africa as it opens up opportunities that did not exist before. Fostering the African aviation industry may be one of the driving forces of regional integration on the continent. Better connected African countries and regions through a viable air transport industry could be the vehicle that can boost intra-African business, trade, tourism as well as cultural exchange. Developing the aviation industry may also represent an opportunity to ease constant transport problems facing African countries.

Rwanda’s national airline, RwandAir, is expanding rapidly into Africa. “Rwanda is one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, with double digits over the past few years. We see ourselves as a key player. We’re hoping to grow particularly through sharpening our connections between East and West Africa” said its CEO, John Mirenge.

Here back at home in South Africa, OR Tambo International Airport was named the best airport in Africa at the recent Skytrax World Airport Awards, held in Barcelona, Spain.

In general, the African commercial aviation sector needs investment in education, infrastructure development, safety and security and regulatory frameworks. Even so, the opportunities for the sector remain considerable, with a growing market from both demographic and economic side.

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Credit: by Salvatore Vuono