Booming Africa, Busy Skies

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It’s an interesting time for Africa’s airlines. The demand is seemingly there, yet the industry has its share of issues and there is now plenty of competition. Richard Holmes looks at some of the most recent activity, profiles some of the main players, and gets the thoughts of those in the business.

While cold hard data is always the best foundation for making decisions involving rands and cents, naira or shillings, one can also gauge the level of business confidence by simply taking a wander through the departure halls of one of Africa’s major airports. Perhaps Jomo Kenyatta International in Nairobi, OR Tambo International in Johannesburg, or Murtala Muhammed in Lagos, the busiest in Nigeria.

Look around at a reasonable hour of the day and you’ll see a throng of business travellers rushing to catch their flights. Corporate groups in a huddle, a quick pre-flight meeting, or an executive catching up on emails and spreadsheets before stepping on board.

Business travel in Africa is – if not quite booming – showing itself to be in distinctly good health, as growing economies lead to increased demand for corporate travel. For while leisure travellers may fill up the back of the plane, it is the business traveller seated – usually – in Business or First Class, that is the best bellwether of the state of aviation and the economy in Africa. When the economy’s thriving, there is business to be done and travelling to get the deal signed. When the economy stagnates, budgets are slashed and executives stay home. Right now? There’s no shortage of suitcases checking in at African airports…

“According to IATA, in February this year premium air traffic on the Africa-Middle East route grew by over 12% compared to last year – stronger than any other in the world,” enthuses Orhan Abbas, Emirates’ Senior Vice-President, Commercial Operations for Latin America, Central and Southern Africa. “If sustained, this growth in travellers from Africa is a good sign of future growth for the airline industry.”

Across the Atlantic, US giant Delta Air Lines is also seeing “strong demand from the business travel market between Africa and the United States,” notes Jimmy Eichelgruen, Delta’s Regional Sales Director for Africa. Delta offers more than 50 flights a week to five countries on the continent from its hubs in New York and Atlanta.

“As the economies in major trading countries improve, so does the corporate travel market to and from these countries, and this is what we are seeing at present, with very positive advance bookings for 2014,” adds Eichelgruen.

All of which points to the fact that Africa is becoming an increasingly important destination for global carriers. With seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies to be found in Africa, airlines from the USA to Asia are lining up to tap into the boom in corporate travel.

“British Airways considers Africa an important growth market, and the acquisition of bmi and new aircraft coming into the fleet are enabling us to expand our network on the continent,” says Edward Frost, British Airways’ Commercial Manager for Southern and East Africa.

That BA expansion is gathering pace.

“In East Africa we’ve added an additional frequency to Uganda to offer four weekly flights, and have amended our schedule to provide better connections to other international services through Terminal 5,” says Frost. “We’ve increased capacity to Kenya by introducing Boeing 747-400s on the route, and by using larger aircraft provide over 780 additional seats every week. In West Africa we increased our services to Ghana to 10 a week. In all, we currently operate 85 flights a week to 14 African destinations.”

Likewise, Lufthansa has seen tremendous growth in specific areas of Africa, particularly resource-based economies. The airline flew over 200,000 passengers between Germany and Nigeria in 2013, and “the Nigerian market has evolved significantly, thanks to factors such as infrastructural upgrades in the major airports, local carriers extending international flight portfolios, the advent of online travel agents, and direct accessibility to travel offers online,” says Axel Simon, Director Southern Africa for Lufthansa German Airlines and Swiss International Air Lines. Lufthansa offers two daily flights – from Lagos and Abuja – to Frankfurt via Port Harcourt.

Nigeria is certainly the flavour of the month, and in June Kenya Airways launched four flights a week between its hub in Nairobi and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja.

“The business travel market in Nigeria has been steadily growing again over the past couple of years, after the lull during the economic downtown a few years ago,” explains Kudirat Scott-Igbene, Marketing Executive for Virgin Atlantic Airways in Nigeria. “Trans-Atlantic traffic is a key market for Virgin Atlantic. Competition on the route is strong, which is why this year we launched a partnership with Delta that means that we can offer strong competition with other carriers, offering more choice and flexibility to customers.”

British Airways is also a major player on trans-Atlantic routes connecting into Africa. Its partnership with American Airlines, which recently merged with US Airways, means travellers flying through Heathrow can connect onto 70 direct flights a day. Between London and New York alone there are up to 17 flights a day in each direction.

While these trunk routes and key business destinations attract plenty of international traffic, a number of smaller destinations with sound economic potential are proving equally attractive to global carriers.

“A number of other countries, including Angola, Sudan and Zimbabwe, are showing great promise and are attracting investment into their mining and tourism sectors,” says Abbas. “For the airline industry, these are the new frontiers of growth. The interdependence between heightened economic activity and a growing airline industry will see the two feed off each other in these new developing economies.”

And it’s not just the global carriers seeing the growth and potential in the smaller markets.

“Of course the market does change and we provide routes where the demand is,” says Michéll Fourie, Air Namibia Country Manager Zambia and Sales & Marketing Manager South Africa. “These include routes ex Johannesburg and Cape Town to Windhoek, and points beyond including Walvis Bay and other domestic connections in Namibia, Luanda, Harare, Lusaka, Victoria Falls and Maun, and of course our international route Frankfurt, with feeders across the Lufthansa network.”

Yet while airlines are increasing frequency and capacity into Africa, the emphasis is still firmly on the bottom line. Margins are tight, competition is fierce and customers demand more value than ever before. While demand for the premium cabins has certainly bounced back since the dark days of 2008, corporate clients remain wary of wasteful expenditure.

“Nigeria is predominantly a late booking market, but we are seeing many corporate clients becoming more cost-driven when purchasing travel,” says Scott-Igbene. “There is a lot more planning going into corporate travel to ensure bookings are made well in advance in order to access the best fares. We also see more bookings in more rigid booking classes, and a few corporate entities have revised their travel policies in a bid to reduce cost.”

Middle Eastern carriers muscle in

Part of that policy change has been for corporate clients to consider indirect routings, in a bid to keep travel costs down. It’s a trend that the cash-flush Middle Eastern carriers have been quick to capitalise on by expanding networks, adding capacity and luring travellers with some of the best on-board product in the sky.

Qatar Airways recently increased frequencies into Johannesburg to offer 10 flights a week, with selected flights linking Maputo and Cape Town to the Doha-based carrier’s global network. Furthermore, since May the airline has deployed the vaunted 787 Dreamliner on the route.

“Our 787 Dreamliners give passengers a superb onboard experience, with specially designed interiors, spacious cabins and custom-made seats in both Business and Economy Class,” says Qatar Airways Chief Executive Officer His Excellency Mr. Akbar Al Baker. “This, along with an advanced entertainment system featuring the world’s first ‘dual-screen’ interface, and communication systems including onboard Wi-Fi for all passengers, enables us to offer an exciting and unique product for passengers travelling from Southern Africa.”

Etihad Airways, which serves eight destinations in Africa, is another of the region’s carriers that’s been quick to expand in Africa. Since launching to Nigeria in 2012, the airline has increased its frequency to a daily flight between Lagos and Abu Dhabi.

Similarly, Emirates will expand its services into Africa from 1 August 2014, with the launch of a linked service to Abuja and Kano in Nigeria, bringing the airline’s tally of African destinations to 26.

Some of the airline’s African routes have been impacted by planned engineering works to the runways at Dubai International Airport, but by the end of July the schedule will be back to normal, says Abbas.

“The full schedule to South Africa will be reinstated once the runway upgrade has been completed by the expected date of 20 July 2014,” he says. “This will mean that Jo’burg will see a return to three flights daily and Cape Town will resume its twice-daily flights to Dubai. Durban with its daily fight was unaffected by the runway upgrades.”

Emirates is renowned for innovative on-board product, and with stiff competition on the continent airlines are certainly having to up their game when it comes to customer experience.

One of the most exciting changes amongst African carriers has been the arrival of the Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ in African skies. Outside of Japan, Ethiopian Airlines was the first carrier in the world to receive the next-generation aircraft. It currently has seven B787s in its fleet, with three more to be delivered in 2014.

“We currently have the youngest fleet in Africa with an average age of seven years,” says Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO Tewolde Gebremariam. “In line with our 15-year strategic roadmap of fast, profitable and sustainable growth, ‘Vision 2025’, we will continue to expand and modernise our fleet in order to continue to provide maximum comfort to our customers.”

Kenya Airways followed suit with its inaugural 787 service to Paris last month, while in February British Airways became the latest carrier to bring the Airbus A380 ‘superjumbo’ to South Africa.

But it’s not all about the aircraft. Value-added services and ‘out-of-the-box’ fare offers are equally attractive to corporate travellers – particularly those watching their budgets.

South African low-cost carrier Mango is a case in point, offering business travellers ‘bolt on’ products and services to make a cheap seat more productive.

“Our Mango Flex and Mango Plus products offer travellers flexibility, with Mango Plus adding benefits such as 10 kilograms additional checked luggage, Bidvest Premier Lounge Access and on-board refreshments,” says spokesperson Hein Kaiser. “Our fleet has also been fitted with new seats that offer some of the best Economy Class legroom in domestic skies.”

Much of the airline’s anticipated future growth is set to come from budget-conscious corporate travellers, and small-and-medium enterprises, suggests Kaiser.

“We expect the price and value quotient to continue playing a large role in travel decision making, and low-cost carriers will likely continue to feature prominently in such decision matrixes,” he says. “There are no specific sectors that will contribute to growth, but small enterprises and entrepreneurs are likely to continue to be a growth area for low-cost carriers, along with companies from all sectors trading toward more affordable travel.”

EgyptAir has also adapted the way it does business, in a bid to attract more corporate clientele, introducing an additional ‘Z’ fare class that offers steeply discounted Business Class fares.

“In addition, Terminal 3 at Cairo International Airport offers exclusive VIP meet-and-assist on request, or for those with time to spare there is a wide variety of Quick Transit Tours. In December 2013 the Le Méridien Cairo Airport Hotel was opened at the international airport. It is connected to T3 via a sky bridge and offers state-of-the-art conferencing facilities,” says Ihab Seif, Regional General Manager for EgyptAir.

“Our strategic plan has a clear focus on Africa, with particular focus on increasing our routes to South and West Africa. There is, and has been, a steady climb in corporate travel, and we believe that this trend will continue during 2015,” he says.

Air Mauritius is being similarly innovative in coaxing corporate travellers on board.

It introduced its ‘UP Fare’ that offers a Business Class seat at Economy Class prices. Three times a week Business Class passengers also get to enjoy the lie-flat product on the airline’s Airbus A340 service.

British Airways is also catering for start-ups and entrepreneurs, with its innovative ‘On Business’ loyalty offering.

“On Business is specifically designed for small and medium-sized companies, which don’t have a sufficiently large travel budget to secure corporate discounts, but which buy enough travel to accrue reasonable benefits,” explains Frost. “On Business points are earned on every flight booked and can be redeemed online for flights, upgrades and hotel vouchers. An online calculator enables business owners to work out how may points they’d earn in a year.”

Another indicator of tightening travel budgets is the growing popularity of Premium Economy cabins.

British Airways is revamping the World Traveller Plus cabins across its fleet, while Air France’s Premium Voyageur is now available on nearly all long-haul services. On the 16-hour flight from Johannesburg to Atlanta, Delta’s Economy Comfort service includes priority boarding, more recline and up to four inches of extra seat pitch compared to Economy.

In its first new class offering for 35 years, Lufthansa will launch its Premium Economy cabin later in 2014, with the first seats available on B747-8 aircraft from December.

“From April 2015 this new class will be available on the Airbus A380, which serves the South Africa route,” adds Simon, who says that the new seat will offer 50% more room than Economy Class, a 97-centimetre pitch and an increased baggage allowance. The airline is also rolling out its new lie-flat Business Class, which will be fitted to three-quarters of its fleet by the end of 2014.

Off the beaten (flight) path

Business travel also remains strong in niche African destinations, including the Indian Ocean Islands.

“Business travellers tend to include the greater Indian Ocean region with Reunion in their travels and we have a regular business client base,” says Lenél Vining, Air Austral’s Manager in South Africa. “The abolition of visas for South African passports has made life a lot easier for business travellers who have to travel at short notice.”

With that piece of red tape removed, the airline says it has seen growth of 70% on the Johannesburg route over the past year. The airline is also expanding its regional route network, and Air Austral now offers direct flights between Reunion and the Seychelles.

In addition, its newly-established subsidiary EWA Air is based at Dzaoudzi Pamandzi International Airport on the island of Mayotte, and operates to Dar es Salaam, Pemba [in codeshare with LAM], Moroni, Anjouan, Nosy Be and Mahajanga.

Similarly, Air Mauritius has seen substantial growth in travel beyond its home base at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport.

This is “due to less travelling time, but more importantly value for money, cost-effective rates and value-adds,” says Carla da Silva, Regional Manager Southern Africa and Latin America for Air Mauritius. “Business to Asia, Australia and London in particular has increased.”

Part of the appeal is the offer of a free stopover when a seamless connection is not possible.

“Many corporates have used this value-added offer to combine business trips in Mauritius and elsewhere,” adds Da Silva. “Air Mauritius has corporate fares and value-adds structured for this segment too, offering upfront discounts and value-added benefits.”

The airline added a third frequency to Shanghai in January, and from 6 July will add an additional morning flight from Johannesburg to Mauritius on Fridays and Saturdays, “allowing corporate customers to connect seamlessly to beyond destinations, and allowing for shorter yet effective trips when doing business in Mauritius,” says Da Silva.

Air Mauritius isn’t the only airline looking to shake things up, with a combination of innovative products and fleet improvement, according to Fourie of Air Namibia.

“Our most recent fleet addition in late 2013 was the self-owned A330-200 aircraft, servicing the Frankfurt route,” she says. “Currently, we have also introduced (seasonally) our A319 aircraft on the Lusaka and Harare route. Further to that, our frequent flyer programme offers our clients double miles on the Johannesburg to Windhoek and Walvis Bay routes. Companion specials in Economy Class and Business Class are on offer from Johannesburg or Cape Town to Windhoek, as well.”

Fasten your seatbelts

However, while demand is strong and airlines are innovating in on-board product to attract travellers, the industry isn’t without turbulence. Government meddling, high fuel costs, safety and lack of infrastructure continue to hamper the growth of aviation in Africa.

“There are many challenges facing the industry. Primarily, the fluctuation on foreign exchange markets which notably depressed income for the airlines, including Lufthansa,” explains Simon from Lufthansa.

“Infrastructure and huge costs remain the biggest factor,” adds Seif.  “The fuel prices and fluctuating exchange rate have a direct impact on the aviation industry.”

As South Africa’s economic growth lags behind the resource-rich economies of West Africa, Lufthansa’s Johannesburg route “is experiencing a stagnant corporate travel market, which is being driven by the economic situation,” adds Simon. “Many companies are under cost-cutting pressure, resulting in them adjusting their travel procurement policies. For 2015, depending on the economic performance, Lufthansa foresees a relatively stable demand similar to that of 2014.”

Civil unrest can also have an impact on airline demand, and “from the perspective of business travel, factors such as the heightened state of security can impact on the industry,” adds Scott-Igbene of Virgin Atlantic Nigeria. “Continuing investment in regulation and infrastructure are necessary for the industry to perform optimally, and fluctuating fuel prices remain a major challenge for all airlines, as close to half of the airlines’ overall costs are in fuel.”

However, with Nigeria’s economy recently overtaking South Africa’s as the largest on the African continent, there’s sure to be steady demand for air travel in and around the West African economic powerhouse.

“We expect that Nigeria will continue to see growth in both inbound and outbound travel,” continues Scott-Igbene, adding that Nigeria’s status – alongside Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey – as one of the ‘MINT’ emerging global economies, is likely to give a further boost to corporate travel.

And that boost will be a boon to airlines serving the corporate travel market in Africa.

“Barring any unforeseen political or economic setbacks, the outlook is positive, with major airlines showing capacity discipline in 2014, and going into 2015,” says Eichelgruen. “As economies of major trading nations continue to grow and improve, or developing markets demand more attention, so does the corporate travel market.”

African skies – a view from Nairobi

From inflated fuel prices to government regulations that stifle rather than stimulate air travel, aviation in Africa has more than a little turbulence to fly through these days. Business Traveller Africa got onto Skype to ask Raphael Kuuchi, the recently-appointed Vice-President for Africa at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), about what the future holds for African skies…

Q: How healthy is the aviation industry in Africa?
A:
The African airline industry is in much better health today than it was a few years back. In 2011, African airlines collectively lost $100-million. In 2012 and 2013 they broke even. This year they’re on track to make a profit of $100-million. Africa only accounts for four percent of global commercial traffic, but it represents massive untapped potential. Corporate travel is growing significantly in Africa, and as GDPs grow, so corporate travel grows. The fastest growth in business travel has been from Africa to the Middle East. That has grown 12% in the past year. However, traffic between Africa and Europe, between Africa and the Far East, and intra-Africa has not grown – it has remained flat. In East Africa the Kenyan and Ethiopian markets are growing very strongly. Nigeria is growing fast in terms of aviation traffic, and South Africa is another market doing very well. Going forward, they will continue to generate significant traffic. Angola is coming up very fast, but even though the demand is there, the limiting factor is the restricted access to the market. If better access is granted, the growth in Angola will see the size of the market double or triple.

Q: So there’s good potential for growth on the continent?
A:
African economies are growing, and as economies grow traffic will grow. IATA forecasts that African traffic will continue to grow at four percent year-on-year over the next 20 years. But this growth is still being constrained by the lack of liberalisation and market access. A lot of people who would otherwise travel are unable to do so, because the size of the market is artificially controlled.

Q: How is the airlines’ access to markets being restricted?
A:
Unlike most parts of the world where markets are liberalised, in Africa they are controlled by bilateral agreements – between governments – that restrict access to the market. In some countries the government wants to protect the local airline, while in other areas it is because the government wants to generate royalties out of allocating traffic rights. IATA is arguing for liberalisation. With liberalisation comes competition, and with competition comes efficiency and the cost of operation comes down. That will also stimulate the market, demand will grow, more people will be able to travel, and that will lead to job creation.

Q: Market access aside, what are the other challenges facing African airlines?
A:
The biggest problem for carriers is the high cost of jet fuel, which is on average 21% higher than the global rate. This is due to the high taxes placed on it by governments – aviation fuel is often taxed to subsidise other parts of the economy –the high fees charged by oil companies for transporting the oil, and the scarcity of storage facilities. The other issue in African aviation is that most continental currencies are unstable, and most business is transacted in the US dollar or another foreign currency. We also have issues relating to labour regulations and labour supply. We are lacking capacity in most areas, particularly pilots, engineers and technicians. Because of these factors, airlines are forced to look at other areas where they can cut costs to be more efficient.

Q: Are low-cost carriers starting to make their presence felt on routes across Africa?
A:
The budget carrier model is successful in markets where the volumes are high and the market is liberalised. In Africa there are only a few city pairs where the volumes are sufficiently high. For the rest of the African market the volumes are not that big and legacy carriers are still servicing those markets. The other factor that’s a constraint on growth in low-cost carriers is the high taxes on airline tickets. In some countries the tax is as high as $150 or $180 per ticket. If you’re a low-cost carrier, how much can you add on to that tax to make money?

Fastjet growing at pace

With a host of new routes and additional frequencies, fastjet is proving a force to be reckoned with in the African airline industry. Down the line from London, Chief Commercial Officer Richard Bodin told Business Traveller Africa about the airline’s secrets of success… and plans for expansion.

Q: Is fastjet aimed at business or leisure travellers?
A:
At the outset we specifically didn’t target only one sector of the market. Certainly in East Africa the immaturity of the market meant that focusing on only business or leisure traffic would be unnecessary. Our passengers vary depending on the time of day, the route and so on. Weekday mornings and evenings are particularly successful with business travellers. We see a lot of commercial traffic from Lusaka to Dar es Salaam, because businesspeople in Zambia use the port in Dar. We’re also seeing increasing numbers of blue-collar workers flying up to Dar and using our services to reach mining operations in the country.

Q: Is there space in the market for fastjet to be growing so quickly?
A:
We’re not looking to cannibalise market share – we’re looking to grow the market. We want to use price to stimulate travel, to grow the market and become one of the key operators in that market. On the Johannesburg route, our lowest fare is 45% lower than the existing carrier servicing the route. Domestically, our lowest fare is $20, which is significantly cheaper than the competition and cheaper than buses. Lusaka to Dar es Salaam by bus is 28 hours if you’re lucky, but you can fly it in two.

Q: Which regions or routes are showing good growth?
A:
We’ve just added more frequencies on our domestic routes – we’re seeing incredible take-up in Tanzania and we are certainly the best-known airline brand in the country. We have added more flights to Mwanza, Mbeya and we’ve added additional capacity on the Kilimanjaro route. Not too long ago we added a third weekly flight to Lusaka, and I can certainly see that moving towards a daily flight. We’re also seeing pleasing figures on the Johannesburg route, and that will hopefully move to daily in the future.

Q: It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though. You’ve recently closed operations on the Fly540 brand in Ghana and Angola. What happened?
A:
Our key focus is the fastjet model, the typical low-cost model of utilising jet aircraft and offering the lowest price per seat. The Fly540 model we inherited is different from that. While there are opportunities in Ghana, we’ve suspended Fly540 operations for now. The door is definitely open for a return there, but with the fastjet model. We’ve demonstrated that this model works, and we want to expand that.

Q: What are your plans for expansion?
A:
We have three strands to our growth strategy. First is increasing frequency on existing routes. We’ve seen our competition pulling off routes where we’re becoming increasingly dominant. We’re also adding more international routes. We’re keenly pursuing other cities in Africa, such as Harare and Lilongwe. The negotiations are progressing very nicely, and we look forward to launching those in weeks rather than months. We also plan to grow our bases – fastjet Tanzania is growing beautifully, fastjet Zambia will serve domestic and international routes, and we’re looking to expand further.

Q: IATA suggests African aviation needs more liberalisation. What has the reaction been like from governments to your expansion plans?
A:
We’ve had the full spectrum of responses from governments. We’ve had authorities throw open the doors and welcome us, with Zambia being a great example of that. And at the other end of the spectrum, some countries have taken a very protectionist stance, usually where there’s a flag-carrier in place.

Q: Have you launched any new products for business travellers?
A:
We are always developing new functionality, so we’re currently lining up third-party suppliers to provide hotels, car bookings and so on. We have plans for some new booking enhancements, such as choosing your seat, but those are in the pipeline. We’ll continue to develop products as the market requires, but we certainly won’t be introducing things like frequent flyer miles or business lounges.

High-flying web access

Alongside innovations in cabin comfort that have seen First Class cabins reach previously unimaginable levels of luxury, and lie-flat beds become standard for Business Class travel, a new frontier of competition as airlines battle for customers is on-board connectivity.

Europe and the United States are leading the way in ensuring passengers can access the Internet in-flight, and a number of carriers worldwide now offer seamless roaming services at 35,000 feet.

According to IHS, a global market information and analytics company, by the end of last year roughly 4,000 aircraft – or 21% of the global fleet – offered either mobile or data connectivity. While it is a long way from being available on every aircraft, that penetration rate is up from 15% in 2012 and just 12% in 2011. By 2022, wireless connectivity is expected to be available on half of the global fleet of commercial aircraft.

In-flight connectivity comes in two forms: wireless Internet access, and mobile phone connectivity. Some airlines – such as Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines – have opted for both.

The roll-out of the technology has not been without its detractors though. While Wi-Fi access allows passengers to quietly access the Internet in-flight, concerns over the intrusion of mobile phones – “Hi Honey, I’m on the plane!” – into already-claustrophobic cabins has seen a number of airlines steer clear of mobile phone connectivity in-flight. Of the 14,000 aircraft forecast to provide some form of connectivity by 2022, only a third are expected to offer both Wi-Fi and cellular options, says IHS.

Which technology to implement will largely come down to customer and cultural preferences, but you can be sure that it’s an area where airlines will have to tread carefully. It’s a fine line between keeping pace with competitors and alienating loyal passengers.

On-board Internet access is more widely available though, and is offered on a number of global carriers servicing Africa. That includes the likes of Emirates and Qatar Airways. The Doha-based carrier offers Internet access on all Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, as used on its popular Johannesburg route.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines is also upgrading its fleet to offer the service, and the carrier will offer Wi-Fi connectivity throughout its long-haul fleet by the end of 2015. 

“The introduction of Wi-Fi on Delta-operated flights between Africa and the United States will enable customers to get online throughout their journey,” confirms Jimmy Eichelgruen, Delta’s Regional Sales Director for Africa.

While Africa has never been known for its stellar communication technologies, a number of continental carriers are already embracing the trend in a bid to attract corporate travellers who like to stay connected in-flight.

TAAG Angola Airlines recently became the first sub-Saharan customer for industry-leader OnAir, and the Luanda-based carrier has been installing Thales TopConnect on its new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft being delivered this year. The technology will allow for both Internet and mobile phone access in-flight.

“TAAG is an ambitious airline, leading the modernisation of air transport in Angola,” says Captain Lourenço Manuel Gomes Neto, Executive Vice-President Operations of TAAG Angola Airlines. “OnAir connectivity, in the form of in-flight Wi-Fi and GSM, gives our passengers the freedom to stay in touch with the world outside the aircraft, strongly enhancing their experience. The worldwide service reliability is particularly important, given the routes we fly across from and across Africa.”

Swiss-based OnAir also provides the technology for EgyptAir’s in-flight connectivity. The airline offers Wi-Fi access on selected A330-300 flights, allowing passengers to pay for instant access using most major credit cards.

In South Africa low-cost airline Mango – a subsidiary of South African Airways – is the only carrier in the region to offer on-board web access. The airline launched the service in 2012, and so far demand has been satisfactory, says spokesperson Hein Kaiser.

“Take-up on enabled flights still exceeds the international aggregate of five to six percent. We are presently on eight percent and it continues to grow. At this time six of our eight aircraft are fitted, and we plan to continue providing the service and enhancing aspects of it,” he says.

Those numbers are surprisingly low though, and it begs the question: do customers even want the service? For while airlines are investing in the new technology, it seems passengers worldwide have been somewhat slow on the uptake.

“The proportion of passengers actually connecting to wireless services on board is still very low, averaging in the single-digit percentages,” says Heath Lockett, Senior Analyst for aerospace at IHS. “The great challenge for airlines now is to inform passengers of the services they offer, and to get them to pay for access.”