Africa’s Low Cost Carriers – A Rare Breed

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The rise of fiercely competitive low-cost carrier (LCC) airlines around the world has largely bypassed Africa. The main reason is that Africa has dismally failed to implement an ‘Open Sky’ policy.

The desired open skies environment was supposed to have been created by the Yamoussoukro Declaration which was adopted by most African states in 1988. However, Africa has, mostly for reasons of national pride, held onto its flag carriers. These are usually overstaffed and undermanaged airlines which need protection. A vital component of LCCs is the yield management system. This is a computer-based booking system that allows prices to be continually adjusted in accordance with demand for seats. Timing is, therefore, important in determining whether you get a seat that really is cheap compared with the full-service carriers.

Good LCCs have, nonetheless, emerged in the few African countries that have been prepared to grasp the nettle of a competitive airline environment. Thus, in South Africa, when 1time and Comair’s kulula.com emerged as viable LCCs, SAA then had to respond with its own LCC: MangoAirlines. South African travellers are now well served by a mix of LCCs and full-service airlines. Air travel and tourism have, as a consequence literally taken off, with passenger numbers doubling every four – five years. The other African countries that have allowed a modicum of competition to emerge are: Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

EGYPT

The UAE’s Air Arabia moved into Africa by opening an office in Alexandria. It received its operating licence on 22 May 2010. (It also operates from Morocco’s Casablanca, but as a joint venture.) Based in Sharjah, Air Arabia is the first and the largest low-cost carrier in the Middle East. Air Arabia currently operates scheduled services to 46 destinations in 22 countries from Sharjah, plus 11 destinations in 10 countries from Casablanca, and five destinations in five countries from Alexandria. The airline has a good safety record and operates a young fleet of Airbus A320s, with 162 seats in an all-economy class cabin. Overall it has a Three-star Skytrax rating.

KENYA

Kenya is dominated by Kenya Airways, a full-service carrier. It is, however, sometimes claimed that regional feeder airline Fly540 is a low-cost carrier.  This may be because the name refers to the original fare of Sh5,540 (US$67.00) per adult return between Nairobi and Mombasa. Fly540 began operations in 2006 and mostly operates turbo-props. Full food and beverage services are provided.

NIGERIA

Aero Contractors is sometimes also listed as a low-cost carrier, but is far from it. They are, in fact, a carrier that provides both rotary and fixed wing services to all the major oil and gas companies and supporting industries working in Nigerian and in the West African region. The well-known Virgin Nigeria partnership with Nigerian Eagle Airlines ended in 2008 and became Air Nigeria, but this is a full-service carrier, as is major new airline Arik Air.

MOROCCO

As mentioned, Morocco was one of the few countries to pay more than lip service to the Yamoussoukro declaration. It can, therefore, lay claim to two LCCs. Jet4you is a true low-cost carrier, based in Casablanca. Main hubs of the airline are located in Agadir at Al Massira Airport, in Casablanca at Mohammed V International Airport and in Marrakech at Menara International Airport. The airline belongs to a German travel group TUI. Jet4you was founded in 2006 and currently operates between its Moroccan bases and Europe. In 2010, Jet4you’s fleet consisted of 6 Boeing 737s painted in bright green and red. As a true LCC, Jet4you sells snacks and drinks on board. They charge €11 to check in baggage when booking online and €22 to check it in at the airport.

Air Arabia’s first foray into Africa is Air Arabia Maroc, which is a joint venture with Moroccan investors who set up a secondary base for Air Arabia in Casablanca. The airline began operations in 2009, and has expanded into Europe and Africa.

Air Arabia Maroc is, like its sibling in Egypt, a nominal low-cost carrier in that it only offers economy class seating with a tightish 32-inch seat pitch on its fleet of Airbus A320s. The carrier says it focuses on offering comfort, reliability and value-for-money air travel. Air Moroc’s primary focus is on the Casablanca to London Stansted route. It provides four flights per week costing from £77 one-way including taxes. It is worth noting that Mohammed V Airport is 30km south of Casablanca and ground transportation to the city can be expensive.

TUNISIA

Tunisia’s Karthago Airlines is a privately owned airline based in Tunis, operating scheduled charter flights to Europe. Its main base is Djerba-Zarzis Airport, but most of the flights are out of Tunis-Carthage International Airport. At present, it operates just one aircraft, a 22 year-old Boeing 737-300, with all economy seating. It does, however, when needed, wet lease aircraft (with crews supplied), which are usually older Airbus A300s. As a non-scheduled charter operator it is able to operate to lower standards than the scheduled airlines.

It has a poor reputation and is famous for its passengers having refused to re-board after a technical problem in Paris. On the customer satisfaction websites it scores worse than any other airline surveyed. Note that Karthago Airlines does not have an English-language direct booking website or telephone number. In February 2011 it announced that it was merging with Nouvelair Tunisia.

SOUTH AFRICA

South Africa has the most open sky environment in Africa. There are three true, low-cost carriers – kulula.com, 1time and Mango. Unfortunately, none are registered for a Skytrax rating. Kulula was the first true, low-cost carrier in Africa. It is owned by full-service airline Comair and benefits from its parent’s association with British Airways. Kulula has an excellent safety record and, as part of BA/Comair, is believed to have been consistently profitable. It operates a fleet of Boeing 737s which it has expanded by ordering eight new 737-800s.

In a competitive market that is hard to differentiate on price alone, kulula has aggressively branded itself as a fun airline, as its now famous ’Flying 101’ Boeing 737-800 makes clear. 1time was the next entrant to the South African LCC market, serving all South Africa’s major centres. Its main base is OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg. It was expected that it would start operating from Lanseria Airport to compete with Comair for Johannesburg’s affluent northern suburb passengers, but this expansion has been put on hold, until at least September 2011. 1time operates a fleet of MD 82, 83 and 87s which are showing their age, and on-time departures are reported to be suffering.

Faced with the competition from the two new LCCs, South African Airways decided it could not be left out and so started Mango. This styles itself as not just a low-cost carrier but as a true, budget airline, making flying affordable to the masses. Thus it sells tickets through supermarkets and clothing stores.

Although the competition amongst LCCs can be fierce, there is ample evidence to show that cheap seats can be profitable and the passengers kept happy. It is to be hoped that with the current improvement in African economic growth rates, more countries will be able to foster true, low-cost carriers.

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